Suddenly, millions of people vanish into thin air and the world careens into chaos.

Cars, trucks, boats, planes and trains crash out of control. Tens of millions of people frantically search for missing loved ones and don’t understand what just happened.

They are “Left Behind” in what is called the rapture in Bible prophecy, as the apocalyptic end of the world begins.

The “Left Behind” movie, premiered last night and filmed in Baton Rouge last summer, is based on a best-selling 1995 novel of the same name and authored by Christian writer Jerry B. Jenkins and Bible prophecy scholar the Rev. Dr. Tim LaHaye.

“Jesus Christ is coming again,” LaHaye writes about the Left Behind series of 16 books that topped 40 million book sales. “We can’t know the day or the hour, as Jesus said in Matthew 25:13, but we can know the season or general period of time. We should all be prepared for Christ when He comes.”

A poll conducted by the Barna Group in August 2013 found that four in 10 Americans (41 percent) over the age of 18 believe that “the world is currently living in the ‘end times’ as described by prophecies in the Bible,” according to the movie’s web site, leftbehindmovie.com

In the $16 million movie, Nicholas Cage, portraying airline pilot Rayford Steele, finds many of his passengers and co-pilot have vanished right out of their clothes while reporter Cameron “Buck” Williams, portrayed by Chad Michael Murray, documents the amazing event. On the ground, Chloe Steele, portrayed by Cassi Thompson, finds her mother and brother have vanished as well and she searches for answers in an empty church.

The movie, produced by Stoney Lake Entertainment, was formed in 2012 by CEO Paul Lalonde, co-founder of Cloud Ten Pictures, according to the movie’s web site.

What is the rapture?

The rapture, or catching away, of believers in Jesus Christ to heaven and his second coming to Earth are related end-times events based on around 50 Scriptures, but most specifically on John 14:3, where Jesus tells his disciples he is returning to heaven but promises, “I will come again and receive you unto myself that where I am there you will be also.”

A long list of end-times signs are prophesied by Jesus in Matthew 24 and Luke 21, some of which have been fulfilled but many which have not.

The Apostle Paul writes in I Thessalonians 4:16-17, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up (‘harpazo’ in the original Greek and ‘raptura’ in medieval Latin) together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

Local faith leaders react

Most Bible-based religions proclaim Jesus will return and there will be an end of current human history but exactly how and when is a complicated debate.

The Rev. Dr. David Goza, senior pastor of Jefferson Baptist, said world events make the movie’s release timely and he plans to see it.

“We are living in a day when specific end time prophecies are being fulfilled,” Goza wrote in an email. “For example, the Scripture predicts in the end times that Israel will be a nation, which was not true for almost 2,000 years when they were dispersed throughout the world.

“The Bible also indicates a technology explosion where one man will be able to monitor the buying and selling activity of every human on earth through the ‘mark of the beast,’” Goza wrote. “We live in a day in which technology has advanced to a point that this could actually occur; this was not true in any other time.

“The rapture occurs after the church age described in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 and before the coming of the Antichrist in Revelation chapter 5,” Goza wrote. “The Apostle Paul in II Thessalonians chapter 2 clearly states that the church, which embodies the Holy Spirit, will be removed and then the Antichrist will appear.

“A pre-tribulation rapture is important because it is the most natural explanation of events described in the Bible when it is approached literally,” Goza wrote.

The Very Rev. Paul Counce, pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral, could not disagree more.

“Since the Catholic Church does not interpret the Bible fundamentalistically — literally — and always compliments biblical doctrine, biblical teaching, biblical truth, with the truth that comes from sacred tradition — the church simply does not interpret the various passages of Scripture ... claiming there is a rapture, claiming after that is a great tribulation, that people are going to be left behind,” Counce said in a phone interview.

“We don’t think that is true at all,” Counce said. “If somebody wants to read or watch the Left Behind series as science fiction — it is science fiction — it’s certainly not religiously true.”

The Rev. Patti Snyder, pastor of University Presbyterian Church, has not read the books and responded in an email she probably won’t see the movie either.

“The theology of the Presbyterian Church USA and my own theology emphasize the love and grace of God known in Christ and humanity’s call to respond to that love and grace with gratitude and faithful service to the ideals of justice and peace that signify the realm of God,” Snyder wrote. “In Christ, that realm is already among us on earth and yet not fully realized.

“We place emphasis on the gift and calling of life, the importance of which was made clear in the incarnation, rather than on attempts to determine when Christ might come again or who will be going to heaven,” Snyder wrote. “That is up to God. Our lives — past, present and future — are in God’s hands regardless.”

The Rev. Herman O. Kelly Jr., pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, on South Boulevard in Baton Rouge, said in a phone interview that he believes in the imminent return of Christ, but doesn’t preach much on future prophecy because his congregation needs hope for the present.

“We try to make the world a better place and leave a legacy for our children and serving God with our gifts and graces,” Kelly said. “I talk about end times as far as God will make it right — some of the suffering we’re going through now — God will make it right because He is the final judge.

“In African-Methodism we don’t get into that much detail that divides the house — if your daughter is not in church you don’t see her again,” Kelly said. “I don’t bring gloom and doom — we’ve got enough of that. I tell people we need to have our house in order. We’ve got to live daily because night comes.”

Bishop Raymond W. Johnson, senior pastor of Living Faith Christian Center, one of Baton Rouge’s largest African-American churches, said he expects the movie will provoke questions and he will see it so he can respond.

“We teach that there will be a ‘catching away’ of those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. The world will go through a ‘tribulation’ period and then God will close this dispensation with judgment,” Johnson wrote in an email. “I believe that some who miss the initial catching away of believers will be redeemed during the tribulation at a great cost to them, however. This is why we compel all to be saved now while you can and don’t risk the other options.”

The Rev. Jonathan Stockstill, senior pastor of Bethany Church, hasn’t read the books but does plan to see the movie.

“I would say anything that puts eternity in front of people and points them toward the Bible is something that has my support,” Stockstill wrote in an email.

“I am less concerned with people adopting a specific theological view than that they be confronted by the reality of eternity and be encouraged to look to Scripture for answers.

“My personal view is of a pre-tribulation rapture,” Stockstill wrote. “I understand that there are different views about the rapture out there, including many whom I respect.”

A Jewish perspective

While the rapture and second coming of Jesus Christ are New Testament doctrines, there are many end-times prophecies in the Old Testament, including those regarding a Messiah.

Rabbi Thomas Gardner, of Baton Rouge’s Beth Shalom, said recently that he’ll try to see the movie and that he planned to discuss the Messiah in his sermons during the now-concluding High Holy Days.

“In terms of the ‘Olam Haba’ the World to Come — what happens at the end of days, the Talmud tells us not to speculate,” Gardner said. “We should focus on being good people here on this earth and follow God’s commandments — when this world comes to an end — those who are good will go to the World to Come.”

Regarding the timing of the movie related to news of the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, Islamic State fighters and ebola outbreaks, Gardner said the end could be near, “but there were terrible dark times in the past, World War I and II seemed like the end of the world, but it wasn’t. If it is, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing.”

Gardner said he does put stock in Old Testament prophecies, like chapter 37 of Ezekiel where a valley is filled with dry bones and they are divinely revived back into living humans, the same Scripture the Rev. Goza referred to as Israel becoming a nation again.

“I think there are layers upon layers in the Bible, so one thing that (Ezekiel) was talking about was the return of Israel as a Jewish country and that is what we have today — but I also think that part of that prophecy is the return to life of people who have died and that has not happened yet,” Gardner said.

Another example, Gardner said, is when Abraham is told his people will go down to Egypt and sojourn there.

“I think they were talking about Jacob’s family in Egypt but they were also talking about the later exiles from Israel and the current exile,” Gardner said, “when God said, ‘I will come with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm I will free you,’ he was also talking about the end of days.”