Word spread quickly in
some conservative Christian circles when
Israeli troops captured the Old City of
Jerusalem from Arab forces in June 1967.
This was it: Jesus was coming.
But Jesus did not return that day,
and the world did not end with the
culmination of that Arab-Israeli war.
Neither did it end in 1260, when
Joachim of Fiore, an influential
12th-century Italian monk calculated it
would, nor in February 1420, as
predicted by the Taborites of Bohemia,
nor in 1988, 40 years after the
formation of Israel, nor after the Sept.
11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But after last week's devastating
earthquake in Pakistan, coming as it did
after a succession of recent disasters,
the apocalyptic speculation, bubbled up
again with impressive fervor on many
Christian blogs, in some pews and among
some evangelical Christian leaders.
Combined with fears of a global
pandemic of avian flu, the calamitous
flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina
and last year's tsunami in Asia, the
predictions of the end of the world are
to be expected, religious historians
said. After all, Christians have been
predicting the end of history since the
beginning of theirs.
"The doomsday scenarios are fairly
cyclical," said Randall Balmer, a
professor of American religious history
at Barnard College. "The theology they
are based on is a very linear view of
history. They believe we are now ramping
up to the end of time."
While these predictions have been
around for thousands of years, the
fixation on the so-called end times may
be greater than ever on the American
religious landscape, said Timothy P.
Weber, a church historian and the author
of "On the Road to Armageddon: How
Evangelicals Became Israel's Best
Fascination with the end of days is
seemingly everywhere, in popular
television ministries (like Pat
Robertson's), on best-seller lists (the
"Left Behind" series) and even on bumper
stickers ("In case of rapture, this car
will be unmanned").
What could be behind this
fascination? Many church leaders and
theologians, including evangelicals,
give little effort to trying to
interpret natural disasters and other
events that might portend the end of
history. The preoccupation these days
stems mainly from the outsized influence
of a specific, literalistic approach to
biblical prophecy, called
dispensationalism, which only came to
occupy a dominant place in American
evangelicalism relatively recently.
"Dispensationalists have never had
the kind of public exposure and the kind
of political power that they have now,"
Mr. Weber said. As a whole, evangelical
Christians are united in their belief
that Jesus will come back in human form
at some point in history. Where they, as
well as members of other Christian
groups, have differed is precisely how
this will occur, depending on how each
interprets a single verse in the 20th
chapter of the Book of Revelation and
its allusion to a 1,000-year reign by
This difference, in large part, Mr.
Weber said, shapes how much they are
"players in the end-time game."
Some theologians read the passage and
Revelation less literally. Drawing on
references elsewhere in the Bible, they
say the verse means that Christian
influence will grow in the world until
it is completely evangelized, leading to
a millennial period of universal peace
and prosperity. Because they believe
Christ will return after the millennium,
they are called post-millennialists.
Others, called amillennialists,
believe that the millennial age is
unfolding now, through the church, but
that evil continues to exist and will
only be eradicated when Christ returns.
It is those who read the passage most
literally - the so-called pre-millennialists
- who hold the most pessimistic views.
They believe history is irrevocably
deteriorating, on its way toward a
period of terrible suffering, called the
tribulation, which will only be broken
when Jesus returns and rules for a
Dispensationalism emerged as an
offshoot of this last school, owing its
spread in large part to the work of a
19th-century British evangelist, John
Darby taught that history unfolds in
various stages, or dispensations, and
introduced several innovations to
pre-millennialism, most prominently, the
concept of the Rapture - that before the
tribulation, true believers will
suddenly be whisked away to heaven. This
belief is the basis for the popular
"Left Behind" series of novels.
Darby also emphasized the role of the
nation of Israel in the end of history;
the Israelites' return to the promised
land, he said, was a requirement of the
Until the mid-19th
century, most American
Christians were actually
Their fervor for
hastening Jesus' return
animated many of the
era's social movements,
like the abolitionist
movement. But the Civil
War and the succeeding
immigration - and the
social problems that
came with them - helped
however, won some
evangelist, Dwight L.
Moody, and his ideas
began to catch on.
tenets were eventually
memorialized in the
Bible, which became a
best-seller. Even as
changed over time, with
the ascendance of Billy
Graham and a new breed
of evangelicals, many of
came back to the fore in
the 1980's and onward,
with the rise of the
religious right and the
ministries of many
including Jerry Falwell,
Jack Van Impe and John
about a third of
evangelicals are truly
estimated Richard Cizik,
vice president of
government affairs for
the National Association
although he said he
harboring a more
pessimistic outlook on
remain the most vocal
segment, Mr. Cizik said.
Aided by books,
television and the
Internet, they have
shaped a fascination in
evangelical culture on
the end of days, said
Craig C. Hill, a
professor of New
Testament theology at
Seminar in Washington
and the author of "In
God's Time: the Bible
and the Future," about
Preaching on the end
times is an obvious way
to draw an audience, Mr.
interesting," he said.
"If you have a sign out
for the sermon, 'Our
obligation to the poor,'
you won't get anybody.
If you have a sign out
for, 'The Internet and
the Antichrist,' you'll
bring them in."
offers believers a road
map to deal with
uncertainty in the world
at large. "When somebody
says there's a pattern
here, and let me tell
you what the pattern
means, this is what gets
a lot of people's
attention," said Mr.
Weber, the church
historian. At this
tenets have become so
popular that many
evangelicals who are in
churches that might not
necessarily adhere to
bits and pieces of it.
But the theology has
drawn fire from other
evangelicals for its
narrow reading of the
Bible and its tendency
to ignore social
problems. "It's still
considered by many
theologians to be
somewhat ahistorical and
said Mr. Cizik, who
criticized anyone who
would interpret the
recent calamities as a
sign of the end.
"History has taught
us not to predict," he
said. "I think it's
sheer speculation for
anyone to place a whole
lot of stock in any one
particular earthquake or
Not that that will