Still Left Behind: What the Endurance of the Left Behind Cinematic Universe Can Tell Us About Conservative Moral Psychology

Still from Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist (2023)/YouTube

The End keeps on not coming, but the delay has produced yet another opportunity for a Left Behind film. Directed by and starring Kevin Sorbo, Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist was released just last month in select theaters to an audience score of 97% at Rotten Tomatoes (though not a single critic appears to have reviewed it). Nicholas Cage’s 2014 and Sorbo’s 2023 reboots both take place in the same Left Behind Cinematic Universe (LBCU); the former leaves off with Cage as protagonist Rayford Steele landing the plane from which many passengers have been raptured, while the latter picks up in the following months, with Rayford (now played by Sorbo) and others becoming born-again Christians and uniting as the Tribulation Force to fight the Antichrist.

The 2023 adaptation updates its topical currency with references to “fake news” and “all souls matter,” collapsing the post-Rapture future under the Antichrist administration and the pre-Rapture now of cultural warfare.

Film viewers are “gonna think that they’re watching something that is happening right now,” Mike Huckabee told Sorbo, to which Sorbo responded, “[they’re] gonna feel like the Rapture’s gotta be pretty close.”

Written between 1995 and 2004 (followed by three prequels and a sequel over the subsequent three years), the Left Behind series has sold 80 million copies and continues to be the basis for evangelical films and video games. The series has been adapted to film six times. Preceding the 2023 and 2014 films mentioned above were the 2000, 2002, and 2005 iterations with Kirk Cameron, and a sixth 2017 spinoff of the 40-volume adolescent series Left Behind: The Kids, featuring young people becoming Christians and facing the Tribulation. 

But the fact that the End keeps on not coming suggests we need a different explanation for the Left Behind Cinematic Universe’s continued appeal. Above all, the series juices conservative Christians’ sense of persecution and besiegement by a hostile, liberal, secular government. Though it debuted almost 30 years ago, its power lies not so much in the eschatological vision of the End, that in any case remains forever over the horizon, but in how it speaks to conservative moral psychology. Left Behind is apocalypse as extreme moral dualism—apocalypse without end.

But how do we characterize conservative White Christian moral psychology? One influential account, developed by self-avowed centrist* Jonathan Haidt, is Moral Foundations Theory. According to Haidt, conservatives and liberals tend to emphasize different moral “tastes” from foundations shared by all cultures. Although the number and descriptions vary, for Haidt they generally include: 

  • Authority
  • Loyalty
  • Purity
  • Care
  • Fairness

Conservatives, according to Haidt, mix respect for authority, importance of loyalty, and emphasis on purity with the qualities of care and fairness that liberals prioritize. Conservatives see the importance of all five, he argues, while liberal priorities tend to downplay the importance of ethics that aren’t about harm-reduction and justice.

And indeed, it’s certainly true that the Left Behind series turns on the foundations of authority and loyalty. The series’ premise is the rise of the Antichrist to ruler of the world: as head of the dreaded United Nations, the Antichrist’s earthly government challenges the will of God, but also usurps the proper authority that God’s chosen people—conservative White Christians in this supersessionist series—once did and still should have in America. 

The LBCU is as much a part of the conservative White Christian threat industry as it is of the Christian entertainment industry. Its cousins aren’t so much Christian romance novels or Christian pop music as they are Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax, The Daily Caller, and so on. It reflects conservative white Christians’ sense that they’re being persecuted by secular, liberal elites, but it also energizes those feelings, producing them. 

The loyalty foundation is also key to the series, as its main characters become born again and form a “Tribulation Force” to fight the Antichrist’s plots and wiles. They’re properly loyal to one another as well as to God, and in-group membership turns out to be crucial by the series’ climax, when 144,000 Jews (as well as numerous others) have converted to Christianity, saving them from the fires of hell in which the rest of humanity (i.e. the out-group) are to burn forever. 

A concern for purity shows up most obviously in volume 9 of the series, when the Antichrist rides into the Jerusalem Temple on a pig, which he then slaughters. The series’ skittishness about sex—before they become born-again Christians, Rayford fantasizes about adultery but doesn’t actually adulterate, while his college student daughter sins by getting drunk, though not by having sex—likewise suggests the purity triggers in conservative Christian psychology.

Harm reduction and fairness are present in the series, but they rank distinctly lower. Abortion providers are portrayed as worried about the fall in demand for their baby-killing businesses after fetuses are raptured; yet, while this might look like a critique based on the foundation of harm reduction (according to their morality), the Antichrist’s language of “fetal material” and Rayford’s reaction to it suggest it’s less about care than about disgust—disgust at the procedure, but also disgust about lawless sexuality outside the purity of heterosexual, patriarchal marriage. As Sarah Posner argues, abortion, like homosexuality, triggers a disgust response more than a care response in conservative Christian psychology. If harm reduction were a priority, we would have seen decades of conservative legislation mandating financial support for birth, maternal care, child care, and free long-acting reversible contraception before Dobbs

That fairness is likewise subordinate to the qualities of authority and loyalty also comes down to Left Behind’s notion of justice. The series authors believe that, since everyone has a chance to come to God, if you don’t do so you deserve to be tortured eternally. As in, forever. That pure misanthropic sadism is anticipated in the final novel’s portrayal of the warrior god Jesus, who flies through the air for one hundred pages giving speeches that “splayed and filleted” hundreds of thousands of his enemies, eventually producing “a river of blood several miles wide and now some five feet deep.”

As these examples reflect, Moral Foundations Theory is, in some sense, an attempt to “both-sides” moral psychology by arguing that liberals and conservatives are both moral, but in different ways. But moral psychologists have criticized MFT’s attempt to rehabilitate the conservative-tilted tastes of authority, loyalty and purity without subordinating them to care and fairness, noting that they reflect long-recognized conservative motives of Social Dominance Orientation and Right Wing Authoritarianism. These also happen to be the motives that undergird the authority, loyalty and purity moral foundations of the LBCU. 

Left Behind allows for the frisson of imagining what it would be like to live in the End Times when the Antichrist arises; but, more than that, it hints at the way conservative Christians are already living under the Antichrist’s rule. Having to bake a cake for a gay couple is like the Antichrist outlawing Christianity and establishing a universal world religion. 

It’s already happening. 

Which is why Sorbo says that people watching the movie will think that the Rapture must be pretty close: then is now, it’s happening… it is, so to speak, imminent. Post-Rapture events (in the movie) are happening now (in our world). Like the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s multiverse of collapsed dimensions, the LBCU collapses timelines. The endlessly deferred End is always now; it never comes because it’s already arrived.

*Correction: This essay originally described Jonathan Haidt as a “self-avowed conservative,” though he rejects that label and prefers to think of himself as a “politically homeless [centrist].”