A photograph of an overturned van in a parking lot. In the background, a sign reads: 'Only Jesus saves from hell' in all caps.

“Are you gonna die?”

“Yes Billy, I am going to die.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Billy, have you ever heard about Jesus?”

The thought haunted me at night. Like Billy was about to do, I’d said the sinner’s prayer as a young child—probably three or four years old—and I’d meant it, too. I didn’t want to go to hell. A few years later, it turned out that going to hell was kid’s stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I still feared the Devil. But now I also feared the guillotine.

The guillotine—that shining death implement from the French Revolution. That chopper of heads. I hadn’t learned about France or the revolution yet, though. I was too young. To me, the guillotine was something to look forward to if you didn’t get taken in the rapture.

Billy was unlucky enough to live during the seven-year period known as the Great Tribulation, after God called the true believers to heaven in an event known as “the rapture.” Following the rapture, the remaining Christians—and those who hadn’t converted—were left to endure God’s wrath on the earth. They would ultimately face the Antichrist, a world ruler who would force humanity to renounce Christ and take the “mark of the beast”—a physical mark on the hand or forehead. Those who refused would be killed. So for Billy, the only path to salvation was a literal, physical death by execution—but only after asking Jesus into his heart.

The story of Billy’s conversion and subsequent death was from a film called Image of the Beast—the third in a four-part film series from the 1970s-80s called A Thief in the Night. The films tell the story of the biblical rapture and tribulation foretold by the book of Revelation. Events unfold on a pretribulationist timeline, where all true Christians are taken bodily into heaven before the tribulation begins—leaving a remnant behind.

A Thief in the Night was my first encounter with apocalyptic Bible prophecy. It was also my first encounter with anti-government conspiracy theories—themes that had already consumed my parents when I was born in the early 1980s. They’d both converted to evangelical Christianity in the decade that saw Nixon resign following the Watergate scandal, the end of the Vietnam War, and the birth of the Religious Right in the wake of the social movements of the 1960s.

For the past decade, my dad had researched and written a newsletter and two books on the Trilateral Commission—a nongovernmental international organization founded by David Rockefeller in 1973. The group’s stated purpose was to foster closer cooperation between the United States and its allies in Asia, Western Europe, and North America. Some people (like my dad) sensed nefarious plans, however. They said that the group was a conspiracy of a globalist elite working across governments to bring about a new world order.

In the first film—titled eponymously, A Thief in the Night—the United Nations uses the crisis following the rapture to establish a one-world government. Those who don’t pledge loyalty to the new government by receiving the Mark of the Beast are quickly arrested, except for those who escape to form a militant underground resistance. A series of escalating conflicts follow, leading to insurgent warfare and the systematic execution of dissidents by the UN-backed government.

The films are poorly made. The goal is not to entertain, but to save souls by scaring the audience into repentance and salvation. For many, the story should seem more silly than terrifying. The fear comes from believing that it’s true—that the same events will soon play out in the real world. Little is left to the imagination; the second film—A Distant Thunder—opens with a message scrolling up the screen like an FBI warning:

The motion picture you are about to experience is fiction. The prophecy is not. The producers of this film are not prophets. They are drawing to your attention what God has said in his own word.

The disclaimer continues:

The film is based upon many references in the books of Daniel and Revelation and upon the following Biblical prophecy:

“For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then they which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the lord in the air.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16,17

And from Matthew 24:21:

“For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no nor ever shall be.”

It still might seem silly to many people, but to a seven or eight-year-old—who has been repeatedly assured by adults of its inevitability—it’s the stuff of nightmares. The intersecting themes of shame, isolation, and physical violence combine to form a cocktail of fear and self-doubt. The fear of being left behind, alone, without your family—the only chance of rejoining them being a violent death and your severed head in a basket on the ground. Dying bravely will prove your worth once and for all.

Death by execution is scary, but the real horror is in the waiting. Waiting for the rapture to see if you’ll be left. Waiting in a jail cell to see if you have the courage to resist taking the mark. Waiting for the chopping block as it cuts down the saints in front of you. Always waiting for the next terrible test of faith.

I’d lie awake in bed, standing in that line of martyrs snaking its way to the execution stage. My family had been taken, and I’d been left behind. I’d prayed the sinner’s prayer before—since I could barely speak—but I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t truly believe. Would I be brave enough to join them now? Would I happily give this life for a new life in eternity, even as every fiber of my being screamed no? And then—after everything—would I finally be accepted, or would I still find myself in hell, tortured for all eternity?

“I’ll pray again, just to be sure.”

Alone, in the dark—I probably gave my life to Christ hundreds of times.

An estimated 300 million people have seen a Thief in the Night. It’s been screened primarily in homes and churches, where the righteous gather the lost to give them the good news: you can avoid all of this—all it costs is your life. In 1995, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins published the first of a new series—Left Behind—which sold so well that it became a multimedia franchise by the mid-2000s.

In Billy’s final moments, David—the only friendly adult he has left—refuses to give information to the UN soldiers to save Billy’s life, knowing he recently prayed the sinner’s prayer:

“Billy, you’re free. They’re gonna take you outside and lay you down. Now you close your eyes, and tell ’em you love Jesus no matter what.”

Turning to the soldiers:

“Now I ask you, what can you do now? The boy’s free. He belongs to Jesus Christ.”