End Times
Terror fears and a best-selling fiction series fuel new interest in a real Doomsday

Meet the Prophet
How an evangelist and conservative activist turned prophecy into a fiction juggernaut

The End: How It Got That Way

Is It Good for the Jews?

Glossary of Terms

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Timeline: Countdown?
The apparent fulfillment of biblical apocalyptic prophecy has led End Times believers to work hard to fit more recent events into the scriptural grid

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Posted Sunday, June 23, 2002; 2:31 a.m. EST
Miller knows people who have prepared Bibles with the relevant passages indexed about what will occur during the Tribulation, so that their left-behind friends and relatives will know to prepare for the earthquakes and locusts and scorpions: when "the sun became as black as sackcloth and the moon became as blood." After a while, sightings of the Antichrist come naturally: when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan tells the World Economic Forum that globalization is the best hope to solve the world's problems, when the forum floats the idea of a "united nations of major religions," when privacy is sacrificed to security, the headlines are listed on the prophecy websites as signs that the Antichrist is busy about his business. "He's probably a good-looking man," says Kelly Sellers, who runs a decorative-stone business in Minneapolis, Minn. "I'm sure he's in politics right now and probably in the public eye a little bit." Sellers has read every Left Behind book and is waiting for the next one—"anxiously." "It helped me to look at the news that's going on about Israel and Palestine," which, he believes, "is just ushering in the End Times, and it's exciting for me."

His sister-in-law Jodie thinks technology is a key to hastening the End Times. "'When Christ returns, every eye shall see Him,'" she quotes from Revelation. Thanks to CNN and the Internet, "we're getting to a place where every eye could actually behold such an event." The books were enough to persuade Sandra Keathley, a Boeing employee in Wichita, Kans., not to buy Microsoft's Windows XP, because she has heard rumors that it carries a method of tracking e-mail. (In fact, the software had an instant-messaging bug that was later fixed.) If the Antichrist were to come, she fears, "and you want to contact another Christian, they could see that, trace it."

The growing audience for apocalyterature extends even into mainline Protestantism, a tradition that has spent little time on fire and brimstone. "I would go for years without anyone asking about the End Times," says Thomas Tewell, senior minister of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in midtown Manhattan—hardly a hothouse of apocalyptic fervor. "But since Sept. 11, hard-core, crusty, cynical New York lawyers and stockbrokers who are not moved by anything are saying, 'Is the world going to end?', 'Are all the events of the Bible coming true?' They want to get right with God. I've never seen anything like it in my 30 years in ministry."

There has never really been a common religious experience in America, and that is as true as ever now: some ministers report that these days when they announce they will be preaching on the Apocalypse, attendance jumps at least 20%. But elsewhere church attendance is back down to where it was before Sept. 11, and those pastors see little sign of existential dread. Pastor Ted Haggard, who started a church in his Colorado Springs, Colo., basement that now has 9,000 members, attributes the surge in End Times interest to the Christian media empire as much as anything else: "Because of the theology of our church, I don't think we're close to a Second Coming," he says. "But many of the major Christian media outlets believe that there is fulfillment, and people respond to that. People love gloom and doom. People love pending judgment. No. 1, they long to see Jesus, and No. 2, they look for the justice that Jesus will bring to the earth in his Second Coming."

35% say they are paying closer attention to news events and how they might relate to the coming end of the world since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11

Go into a seminary library, and it's hard to find scholarly books on apocalyptic theology; academics tend to treat this tradition as sociology. They see End Times interest rising and falling on waves of cataclysm and calm. Masses of people became convinced the end was nigh when Rome was sacked in 410, when the Black Death wiped out one-third of the population of 14th century Europe, when the tectonic shudders of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 caused church bells to ring as far away as England, and certainly after 1945, when for the first time human beings harnessed the power to bring about their total destruction, not an act of God, but an act of mankind.

America, a country born with a sense that divine providence was paying close attention from the start, has always had a weakness for prophecy. With its deep religious history but no established church, this country welcomes religious free-lancers and entrepreneurs. Both the visionaries and the con artists have access to the altar. It took the shocking events of the last mid-century to draw apocalyptic thinking off the Fundamentalist margins and into the mainstream. The rise of Hitler, a wicked man who wanted to murder the Jews, read like a Bible story; his utter destruction, and the subsequent return of the Jews to Israel after 2,000 years and the capture of Jerusalem's Old City by the Israelis in 1967, were taken by devout Christians and Jews alike as evidence of God's handiwork. Israel once again controlled the Temple Mount, a site so holy to Islam and Christianity as well as Judaism that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's simple act of visiting the mount was sufficient to ignite the current Palestinian uprising. The Temple Mount is the location of al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, and is also the very place where Christians and Jews believe a new temple must one day be rebuilt before the Messiah can come. An Australian Evangelical once set fire to the mosque to clear the way, and to this day security remains exceptionally tight for fear that those who take Scripture literally might not just believe in what the prophets promised, but might also try to help it along.

But it took something more, a pre-eminent theological entrepreneur, to bring a wider American audience to the apocalyptic tradition. Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, published in 1970, became the best-selling nonfiction book of its decade; Time called Lindsey "the Jeremiah of our generation" for his detailed argument that the end was approaching. "That's the first book I ever read about last days, and it changed my life," says George Morrison, pastor of Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colo., where average Sunday-morning attendance is 4,000. "All of a sudden, I was made aware that wow, there's an order to this thing." Lindsey's explanation of the Bible's warnings came just as a backlash was stirring against '60s liberalism, an echo of the 18th century reaction to the Enlightenment. Lindsey caught the moment that launched a decade of evangelical resurgence, when for the first time in generations believers organized to put their stamp on this world, rather than the next.

The election of Ronald Reagan brought "Christian Zionism" deeper into the White House: Lindsey served as a consultant on Middle East affairs to the Pentagon and the Israeli government. Interior Secretary James Watt, a Pentecostalist, in discussing environmental concerns, observed, "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns." Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger affirmed, "I have read the Book of Revelation, and, yes, I believe the world is going to end—by an act of God, I hope—but every day I think time is running out." It was no accident that Reagan made his "evil empire" speech at a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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