[Headline Story on The Drudge Report, Sunday, June 23, 2002; from Time Magazine]
The Bible and the Apocalypse
The biggest book of the summer is about the end of the world. It’s also a sign of our troubled times
Sunday, Jun. 23, 2002
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 eventsÃ