Be Rapture Ready! The end times are nigh!

John Sutherland

  • Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
    Tyndale House, 398 pp, £15.99, April 2003, ISBN 0 8423 3234 0

Religious fiction is the hot line in American bookstores. It isn’t a new genre – Pilgrim’s Progress still sells; what’s new is its popularity and profitability; and, most strikingly, its doctrinal aggressiveness. We know that eschatology has filled the vacuum where Cold War ideology used to be. But the Cold War fantasised Mutually Assured Destruction, leaving the faint hope of permanent stalemate; Christian fiction prophesies the coming of the ‘end times’. There is no escape. Prepare. The novels will help.

The first sign that the Apocalypse was approaching was the foundation of Israel in 1948. The Jewish ‘homecoming’ was both miraculous and prophetically inevitable. As Mark Hitchcock, the author of The Coming Islamic Invasion of Israel and Is the Antichrist Alive Today?, puts it, in his latest and most excited tract, The Second Coming of Babylon:[*]

The Jewish people were exiled from their homeland in AD 70. It had been almost 1900 years! It was unthinkable. But the Jews endured the horror of the Nazi death camps, and within a few years thousands of them were home. Over the past fifty years, millions of Jews have returned to Israel. About 37 per cent of the Jews in the world now live there. The current and continuing stream of Jews back to Israel is setting the stage for the Antichrist’s peace covenant with Israel that will trigger the seven-year Tribulation (see Daniel 9.27).

Israel, as Tim LaHaye likes to say, is ‘God’s timepiece’; its foundation is the ‘supersign’. ‘Significantly,’ LaHaye writes, ‘the return of the Jews happened in our generation’ (LaHaye is 75): ‘more weighty evidence that we are indeed living in the end times. Something of enormous proportions is about to happen.’ What liberal Christians had limply read as allegory is, for hardliners, demonstrably converging with history.

End-times theory was formulated for a popular audience in Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson’s book The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which linked the Cold War, imminent nuclear annihilation, Middle East crises and apocalyptic prophecy. Hitherto ‘dispensationalism’ (a doctrine that separates history into several ages in which different tasks were required of man, after the teaching of John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century Plymouth Brethren minister) had been of no more importance, theologically, than Tennessee snake-handling. Lindsey broadened dispensationalism’s doctrinal base and gave end-times religion mass appeal. In his sceptical monograph, Iraq: Babylon of the End-Times?, J. Daniel Hays recalls the impact Lindsey’s book made: ‘As a college freshman in 1971, I brought a copy of The Late Great Planet Earth with me to Auburn University. Everyone on my wing of the dormitory, Christian and non-Christian alike, read the book that year. It scared us to death. We thought the end was near.’[†]

Hays, now Professor of Hebrew Biblical Interpretation at Ouachita Baptist University, no longer thinks that, but millions do. A belief that the end times are imminent is a central tenet of the Christian Right. Since 1989 particularly (the USSR was one of the early candidates for modern Babylon), all ‘significant’ world events have been variously interpreted by end timers according to key Biblical texts. Conviction has been progressively hardened by 9/11, the supposed Clash of Civilisations, the expansion of the European Union and the double destruction of Babylon in the two Gulf wars.

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[*] Multnomah, 184 pp., $11.99, March, 1 59052 251 6.

[†] Baker, 144 pp., $12.99, April, 0 8010 6479 1.