What do you watch for, when you are watching the news? Signs that interest rates might be climbing, maybe it's time to refinance. Signs of global warming, maybe forget that new SUV. Signs of new terrorist activity, maybe think twice about that flight to Chicago.
Or signs that the world may be coming to an end, and the last battle between good and evil is about to unfold?
For evangelical Christians with an interest in prophecy, the headlines always come with asterisks pointing to scriptural footnotes. That is how Todd Strandberg reads his paper. By day, he is fixing planes at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb. But in his off-hours, he's the webmaster at raptureready.com and the inventor of the Rapture Index, which he calls a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of End Time activity." Instead of stocks, it tracks prophecies: earthquakes, floods, plagues, crime, false prophets and economic measurements like unemployment that add to instability and civil unrest, thereby easing the way for the Antichrist. In other words, how close are we to the end of the world? The index hit an all-time high of 182 on Sept. 24, as the bandwidth nearly melted under the weight of 8 million visitors: any reading over 145, Strandberg says, means "Fasten your seat belt."
It's not the end of the world, our mothers always told us. This was helpful for putting spilled milk in perspective, but it was also our introduction to a basic human reference point. We seem to be born with an instinct that the end is out there somewhere. We have a cultural impulse to imagine it—and keep it at bay. Just as all cultures have their creation stories, so too they have their visions of the end, from the Bible to the Mayan millennial stories. Usually the fables dwell in the back of the mind, or not at all, since we go about our lives conditioned to think that however bad things get, it's not you know what. But there are times in human history when instinct, faith, myth and current events work together to create a perfect storm of preoccupation. Visions of an end point lodge in people's minds in many forms, ranging from entertainment to superstitious fascination to earnest belief. Now seems to be one of those times.
The experience of last fall—the terrorist attacks, the anthrax deaths—not only deepened the interest among Christians fluent in the language of Armageddon and Apocalypse. It broadened it as well, to an audience that had never paid much attention to the predictions of the doomsday prophet Nostradamus, or been worried about an epic battle that marks the end of time, or for that matter, read the Book of Revelation. Since Sept. 11, people from cooler corners of Christianity have begun asking questions about what the Bible has to say about how the world ends, and preachers have answered their questions with sermons they could not have imagined giving a year ago. And even among more secular Americans, there were some who were primed to see an omen in the smoke of the flaming towers—though it had more to do with their beach reading than with their Bible studies.
That is because among the best-selling fiction books of our times—right up there with Tom Clancy and Stephen King—is a series about the End Times, written by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, based on the Book of Revelation. That part of the Bible has always held its mysteries, but for millions of people the code was broken in 1995, when LaHaye and Jenkins published Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days. People who haven't read the book and its sequels often haven't even heard of them, yet their success provides new evidence that interest in the End Times is no fringe phenomenon. Only about half of Left Behind readers are Evangelicals, which suggests there is a broader audience of people who are having this conversation.
A TIME/CNN poll finds that more than one-third of Americans say they are paying more attention now to how the news might relate to the end of the world, and have talked about what the Bible has to say on the subject. Fully 59% say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attack.
Some of that interest is fueled by faith, some by fear, some by imagination, but all three are fed by the Left Behind series. The books offer readers a vivid, violent and utterly detailed description of just what happens to those who are left behind on earth to fight the Antichrist after Jesus raptures, or lifts, the faithful up to heaven. At the start of Book 1, on a 747 bound for Heathrow from Chicago, the flight attendants suddenly find about half the seats empty, except for the clothes and wedding rings and dental fillings of the believers who have suddenly been swept up to heaven. Down on the ground, cars are crashing, husbands are waking up to find only a nightgown in bed next to them, and all children under 12 have disappeared as well. The next nine books chronicle the tribulations suffered by those left behind and their struggle to be saved.
The series has sold some 32 million copies—50 million if you count the graphic novels and children's versions—and sales jumped 60% after Sept. 11. Book 9, published in October, was the best-selling novel of 2001. Evangelical pastors promote the books as devotional reading; mainline pastors read them to find out what their congregations are thinking, as do politicians and scholars and people whose job it is to know what fears and hopes are settling in the back of people's minds in a time of deep uncertainty.
Now the 10th book, The Remnant, is arriving in stores, a breathtaking 2.75 million hard-cover copies, and its impact may be felt far beyond the book clubs and Bible classes. To some evangelical readers, the Left Behind books provide more than a spiritual guide: they are a political agenda. When they read in the papers about the growing threats to Israel, they are not only concerned for a fellow democratic ally in the war against terror; they are also worried about God's chosen people and the fate of the land where events must unfold in a specific way for Jesus to return. That combination helps explain why some Christian leaders have not only bonded with Jews this winter as rarely before but have also pressed their case in the Bush White House as if their salvation depended on it.
Walter Russell mead is sitting in his office at the Council on Foreign Relations in midtown Manhattan on a soft June afternoon, at work on a book that was born last September. He published an acclaimed history of U.S. foreign policy last year and was working on a study about building a global middle class. But he has put that aside. Piled around him now are the Koran, a Bible, books on technology and a stack of Left Behind books. When Mead predicts that our century will be remembered as the Age of Apocalypse, he does not mean to suggest that the world will soon end in a fiery holocaust. "The word apocalypse," he observes, "comes from a Greek word that literally means 'lifting of the veil.' In an apocalyptic age, people feel that the veil of normal, secular reality is lifting, and we can see behind the scenes, see where God and the devil, good and evil are fighting to control the future." To the extent that more people in the U.S. and around the world believe history is accelerating, that ancient prophecies are being fulfilled in real time, "it changes the way people feel about their circumstances, and the way they act. The grays are beginning to leak out of the way people view the world, and they're seeing things in more black-and-white terms."
At the religious extremes within Islam, that means we see more suicide bombers: if God's judgment is just around the corner, martyrdom has a special appeal. The more they cast their cause as a fight against the Great Satan, the more they reinforce the belief in some U.S. quarters that the war on terror is not one that can ever end with a treaty or communique, only total victory or defeat. Extremists on each side look to contemporary events as validation of their sacred texts; each uses the others to define its view of the divine scheme.
In such a time of uncertainty, it's a natural human instinct to look for some good purpose in the shadows of even the scariest events—and for some readers the theology of the Left Behind books provides it. Some stumbled on the series by accident, and were hooked. Deborah Vargas, 46, of San Francisco bought her first Left Behind book in January at a Target, looking for a good read. She got much more than she had bargained for, especially after Sept. 11. "It was almost a message right out of the Bible," she says. "Something within me started to change, and I started to question myself. What was I waiting for? A sign?" Since then, she says, her life has been transformed, and she is now a regular in the Left Behind chat rooms. "I want to talk about it all the time."
Talk to the people who were already inclined to read omens in the headlines, and you hear their excitement, even eagerness to see what happens next. "We sense we are very close to something apocalyptic, but that something positive will come out of it," says Doron Schneider, an Evangelical based in Jerusalem. "It's like a woman having labor pains. A woman can feel this pain reaching its height when the child is born—and then doesn't feel the pain anymore, only the joy of the happy event." Even the horror of Sept. 11 was experienced differently by people primed to see God's hand in all things. Strandberg admits that he was "joyful" that the attacks could be a sign that the End Times were at hand. "A lot of prophetic commentators have what I consider a phony sadness over certain events," he says. "In their hearts they know it means them getting closer to their ultimate desire."
People who were strangers to prophecy don't always find as much comfort there. When Dave Cheadle, a Denver lay pastor at an inner-city ministry, sent out an Internet letter after 9/11 suggesting that Revelation was the relevant text for understanding what was happening, he got a huge—and frightened—response: "People were asking themselves whether they were ready to die. Very sane, well-educated people have gone back to the storm-cellar thing to make sure they have water and freeze-dried stuff in their basements." Some had trouble reconciling their warm image of a merciful God with the chilling warnings they were reading. "They're asking people to believe that we have a God who simply can't wait to zap the Christian flight crew out of jets so they crash?" asks Paul Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and an author of Christian fiction, who finds in the Left Behind books a deity he does not recognize. "You can't believe in a God who would do this kind of thing."
Others, already believers, have come away from this past winter feeling a need to change tactics, change jobs, find a new way to get the urgent message across. Rick Scarborough, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearland, Texas, a Houston suburb, resigned his pulpit this month to put all his energy into recruiting Christians to become politically involved. "I am mobilizing Christians and getting more Christians to vote. I am preparing a beachhead of righteousness," he says. Meanwhile Wyoming state senator Carroll Miller, a popular legislator from Big Horn County, announced his retirement from politics in part so that he could spend more time speaking at churches and men's clubs, helping people come to grips with the prospect of the Second Coming. "It's very important that we as a Christian nation know what the Scriptures have said about these days," he says. "I'm putting forth my personal effort for my own sake as well as for my family and friends."
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."
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.
It never seemed to hurt that Lindsey's predictions passed their "sell by" date: during the Gulf War, sales of his book jumped 83%, as people feared Saddam Hussein was rebuilding Babylon and dragging the world to its last battle. Nowadays Lindsey sees his early warnings being vindicated almost daily. "The Muslim terrorists are going to strike the U.S. again and strike us hard so that we cease to be one of the world's great powers," he says. "It's not far off." When he wrote his best seller, he says, not many people took prophecy seriously. "I was called a false prophet for saying there'd be a United States of Europe back in 1970, but there is one now. People have watched this scenario continue to come together, and that's why so many people today are believing we are in the midst of last days."
Actually, the more Evangelicals became involved in politics, the more they engaged with the world here and now, the more interest in End Times theology drifted back into the realm of entertainment. And many argued that was a healthy sign. Not all Evangelicals embrace End Times theology, and some see in it a dangerous distraction. Jesus said that when it comes to the time of judgment, "no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, but My Father only." In that light, if Christians are called to put their faith in Christ, whatever trials they face, then it undermines that trust to try to read the signs, unlock the code, focus on what can't be known rather than on what must be done: heal the sick, tend the poor, spread the Gospel.
It is one thing to become politically active to deploy that Gospel to improve people's lives, another to try to promote a specific religious scenario. Intercessors for America, a 30-year-old prayer ministry, helps keep people politically connected through e-mail alerts and telephone-prayer chains. The June 11 Prayer Alert implored, "Lord, raise up government leaders in Israel, the United States (and worldwide) who will not seek to 'divide the land,' and who would recognize the unique significance of Jerusalem in God's end-time purposes." A refusal to consider Israel's withdrawal from any occupied territory would tend to complicate the peace process: virtually every proposal has involved a land-for-peace swap. Yet at the same time, "if this wave of terrorism continues without a meaningful peace treaty soon," predicts John Hagee, pastor of the 17,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, "the sparks of war will produce a third world war. And that will be the coming of the End Times. That will be the end of the world as we know it."
To the true believers, that seems less a threat than the fulfillment of a promise. "If we keep our eyes on Israel, we will know about the return of Christ," says Oleeta Herrmann, 77, of Xenia, Ohio. "Everything that is happening—wars, rumors of war—in the Middle East is happening according to Scripture." Herrmann is a member of the End-Time Handmaidens and Servants, a group of global missionaries who preach the Gospel with an emphasis on End Times teachings. Sept. 11 is proof of her belief that the Second Coming of Christ is "closer than it ever has been," Herrmann says.
And therein lies the central paradox in this wave of End Times interest. If you believe the end is near, is the reaction hope, or dread? "Even though the Left Behind series has been popular, many people still think of the End Times as negative," wrote Kyle Watson on his prophecy news website, AtlantaChristianWeekly.com. He thinks believers should be excited about the end of the world. "Try viewing prophecy and current events [as] how much closer we are to being with Christ in heaven."
That impulse to hope for a good ending is one Cal Thomas, the conservative columnist, sees even in the disciples' questions for Jesus. He cites Bible passages in which the Apostles press Jesus for clues about how the future unfolds. "This is intellectual comfort food, the whole Left Behind phenomenon, because it says to people, in a popularized way, it's all going to pan out in the end," he says. "It assures them, in the midst of a general cultural breakdown and a time of growing danger, that God is going to redeem the time." Evangelicals who had felt somehow left behind in secular terms, by a coarse culture and a fear of general moral decay, welcome arguments that even the most tragic events may be evidence of God's larger plan. In fact, you don't have to be religious to be hoping for that as well.
—With reporting by Amanda Bower/New York, Rita Healy/ Denver, Marc Hequet/St. Paul, Tom Morton/ Casper, Adam Pitluk/San Antonio, Matt Rees/ Jerusalem, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles, Melissa Sattley/Austin and Daniel Terdiman/San Francisco