Threat of war conjures visions of Armageddon

The Greenville News, Mar. 8, 2003
http://greenvilleonline.com/
By Deb Richardson-Moore

Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
Revelation 16:16

Popular movies and culture have co-opted the name Armageddon and made it synonymous with the end of the world.

But to many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, the battle of Armageddon is not the end but the beginning. In their reading of Revelation, the world will meet a warring Christ, but then will most assuredly go on, reigned over by a victorious Christ for 1,000 years.

After that, it gets even better: a new heaven and a new earth.

The site of this battle is the Plain of Megiddo in Israel, within easy striking distance of Iraq, where an American war appears increasingly likely. And so it isn’t surprising to see biblical prophecy conferences popping up or to hear a caller ask a local Christian radio host, “Could this war in Iraq signal the beginning of Armageddon?”

Could it trigger the end of the world as we know it?

No, say a wide range of Bible scholars.

Even those fundamentalists who adhere to a very strict line of end-times prophecy say more has to happen first.

Dr. Stephen Hankins is dean of the Bob Jones University Seminary and a man who believes with all his heart there will be a battle at Armageddon, pitting Jesus Christ against nations led by a smooth-talking Antichrist. But first, he says, there must be a Rapture, in which faithful Christians will be taken up with God. That will be followed by a seven-year Tribulation, a time of international catastrophe like the Earth has never seen.

“So Armageddon isn’t going to happen in Iraq in the next three months,” he said. “That’s out of the question.”

That’s not, however, going to stop the speculation, predict scholars familiar with end-times fervor.

“As early as the Revolutionary War, there has always been a turn to apocalyptic moments in Scripture as a way to explain the present situation, especially if that present is looking bleak or foreboding,” said Dr. J. Kameron Carter, assistant professor of theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School.

“In different generations, people will plug in the values,” said Dr. Paul Thigpen, a Catholic theologian scheduled to speak in Greenville this month. “They’ll take whatever is going on in their day and make it a one-on-one equivalent with things in the book of Revelation.”

‘Armageddon’ time

The question of Iraq’s involvement in all this will undoubtedly become even more pronounced when “Armageddon,” the 11th installment of the popular “Left Behind” series, appears in bookstores April 8.

Author Tim LaHaye is a 1950 Bob Jones graduate, and when he was outlining the series in the early 1990s, he returned to the university’s library to do his research. The series, co-written with Jerry Jenkins, who fleshes out LaHaye’s theology with fictional characters and fast-paced action, has sold more than 50 million books. The last four debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

In the storyline, the heroes were left behind when the Rapture occurred, but quickly accepted Christ as the horrors of the Tribulation set in. In “Armageddon,” Satan is ruling the world from New Babylon, Iraq, and faces his cosmic battle with Israel and her Christian allies.

Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University recently opened the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy, adding considerable muscle to the author’s view of the end of the world.

But it’s not the only literal reading of biblical prophecy. Because the book of Revelation is a form known as Jewish apocalyptic literature, it uses symbolism, numerology and visions that are open to many interpretations.

Even fundamentalists disagree about the sequence of the end time. Some place the Rapture in the middle of the seven-year Tribulation. Some place it at the end.

The Rev. Elva Martin follows the thinking of Bob Jones and the “Left Behind” writers, that believers will suddenly vanish from the earth and meet Jesus just before the Tribulation begins. On Feb. 23 she began a four-part prophecy conference to teach that view at her Word of Truth Assembly of God in Anderson.

But she said impending war with Iraq muddies the waters.

“Iraq is right where old Babylon was,” Martin said. “A resurrected Babylon is mentioned in Revelation. And Saddam considers himself King Nebuchadnezzar reincarnated, who was king of Babylon when Israel was taken captive.”

Indeed, Revelation refers to a whore of Babylon who sits on seven hills. Some interpreters, like Bob Jones’ Hankins, read that as Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. Others think it might literally refer to a restored Babylon, an ancient city currently lying in ruins on the Euphrates River, just miles from Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein has said he wants to rebuild it.

While such speculation might further feed fears that Iraq is somehow involved in Armageddon, Martin said her purpose is to relieve fears by assuring people that God is in control.

“People are getting very upset about all of this and wondering if we’re going to be blown off the map by Iraq,” she said. “I feel like when they see this they’ll come out with a stronger faith in God.”

A darker view

Dr. Melani McAlister, an associate professor of American studies at George Washington University, is disturbed at the confluence of contemporary events and the widely read theology of the “Left Behind” books. The books are so pervasive, she said, that people may become resigned to the inevitability of war in the Middle East.

Writing in The Washington Post, she said, “LaHaye and Jenkins join a chorus of fundamentalist commentators who, despite their protestations to the contrary, have expressed a perverse enthusiasm for the spilled blood and millions of dead that will signal the Second Coming.”

That is a horrible caricature of fundamentalists, Hankins protested.

“There’s no delight in the destruction of people and nations here,” he said. “But it is true that this is a period of a just retribution of Jesus Christ as God.”

In an interview with The Greenville News, McAlister said the view of a God-willed Armageddon to usher in the sought-after Second Coming of Jesus inevitably colors fundamentalists’ view of war.

“It does encourage a certain sense that these conflicts in the Middle East are part of a divinely sanctioned plan,” she said. “Because of that, there’s both less we can do to stop them and perhaps less we should do.”

Dr. Richard Land takes issue with that view as well. Land is the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and has been among the most outspoken of President Bush’s supporters on war with Iraq. His support, he said, is based on “just war theory” and he spends “zero time” worrying about end times.

While a majority of the nation’s 16 million Southern Baptists probably agree with “Left Behind” prophecy, Land continued, “any evangelical worth his salt understands that we can’t manipulate God’s timetable. The Second Coming is going to happen when the Lord decides the Second Coming is going to happen. There’s not anything we can do to hasten it or retard it.”

A rebuilt Israel

It is not, of course, only “wars and rumors of wars” that Scripture points to as a signal of the end of the age. Prophecy enthusiasts say there must be a state of Israel in control of a Jerusalem that houses a rebuilt temple.

After nearly 2,000 years without a homeland, Israel was restored to statehood in 1948. It took over Jerusalem in 1967, and today, said Hankins, conservative Jewish factions in Israel have built scale models for a new temple.

“Think about it,” he said. “If I know from the Scriptures as a conservative fundamentalist Christian that when the Great Tribulation period comes, Israel’s going to be a nation, they’re going to be majorly populating Palestine, in Jerusalem with a temple … that’s kind of noteworthy.”

Some Christian fundamentalists in the United States have gone so far as to breed red heifers because a perfect one without a single white hair is needed to sacrificially purify a new temple site, said Dr. Catherine Wessinger, a professor of religious studies at Loyola University.

But certainly not all Christians go along with biblical prophecy, much less a specific sequence of events. Some theologians read Revelation as speaking entirely to its first-century audience in the Roman Empire. Others say its intricate symbolism defies specific interpretation.

Duke Divinity School’s Carter said the literary genre of Revelation is designed to preserve mystery. He also has a problem with the depiction of a warrior Jesus at Armageddon when the entire message of the cross negates that.

“De-coupling the apocalypse from the cross,” he said, “fails to recognize that God wins over sin precisely by going to the end of suffering in it, not by reproducing the violence of the world. God overcomes evil by entering into it and absorbing the full brunt of that evil.”

Author Thigpen, a historical theologian who will lecture at St. Mary’s Catholic Church March 29, said the Catholic Church explicitly teaches that Christians will not be raptured and “will not be spared the great suffering tribulation at the end of time.”

Even Armageddon, he said, is open to interpretation.

“Whether there will be a literal battle of Armageddon on that particular Plain of Megiddo in present-day Israel or whether when Revelation talks about Armageddon it is talking about some greater conflict, spiritual or physical, I don’t think we can say.”

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