Premillenial theology informs the political thinking of many
There he goes again! No sooner did Pat Robertson apologize for advocating the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Cha’vez than he stirred fresh controversy by suggesting on his popular show The 700 Club show that Ariel Sharon’s stroke was divine punishment for “dividing God’s land” by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and hinting at a partial pullback from the West Bank.
Despite the outpouring of condemnation, Robertson was simply expressing in a particularly bald form a viewpoint shared by many Americans. On the basis of their understanding of Bible prophecy, many agree that God established Israel’s future boundaries millennia ago and that anyone who meddles with these boundaries risks the wrath of the Almighty.
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Many also are convinced that the Bible foretells regime change in Iraq; that the United Nations is a forerunner of a satanic world order; and, indeed, that key themes in the Bush administration’s foreign policy are not simply actions in the national interest but are directly linked to an unfolding sequence of end-time events.
Millions of Americans — upward of 40 percent, according to some polls — believe that the Bible outlines a specific sequence of end-time events. According to the most popular prophetic system — premillennial dispensationalism, formulated by the 19th-century British churchman John Darby — a series of last-day signs will signal the approaching end. These include wars, natural disasters, rampant wickedness, the rise of a world political and economic order, and the return of the Jews to the land promised by God to Abraham.
In Darby’s system, the present “dispensation” will end with the Rapture, when true believers will join Christ in the air. Next comes the Tribulation, when a satanic figure, the Antichrist, will arise in Europe and impose a global tyranny under the dread sign “666,” mentioned in Revelation.
After seven years, Christ and the saints will return to vanquish the Antichrist and his armies at Har-Megiddo (the biblical “Armageddon“), an ancient battle site near Haifa. From a restored temple in Jerusalem, Christ then will inaugurate a thousand-year reign of peace and justice — the Millennium.
Darby’s scenario, cobbled together from various freely interpreted biblical passages, was popularized in America by Cyrus Scofield, whose 1909 reference Bible became a bestseller.
Spreading the premillennial word
In our day, dispensationalism has been promulgated by radio evangelists; fundamentalist and Pentecostal pastors and megachurch ministers; televangelists such as Jerry Falwell, Jack Van Impe, and John Hagee of San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church; and paperback popularizers such as Hal Lindsey and the dynamic duo of the Left Behind books, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), a slangy update of Darby’s teachings, became the nonfiction bestseller of the 1970s. The 14-novel Left Behind series, a fictional treatment of dispensationalism, have sold more than 60 million copies.
During the Cold War, Lindsey and other prophecy gurus focused on the Soviet Union, citing a passage in Ezekiel which they interpreted as foretelling the destruction of Russia. Today’s popularizers, while keeping an eye on Russia, spotlight the Middle East and the rise of a New World Order led by the United Nations and other international bodies; global media conglomerates; and multinational corporations, trading alliances, and financial institutions. This interlocking system, they preach, is laying the groundwork for the Antichrist’s dictatorship.
Pat Robertson’s New World Order (1992) sees history as a great conspiracy, from the Illuminati and the Masons to the United Nations and the Trilateral Commission. In both the Left Behind series and Lindsey’s 1996 prophecy novel Blood Moon, the U.N. secretary-general emerges as the Antichrist. (“I’ve opposed the United Nations for fifty years,” boasts LaHaye, a veteran activist on the religious right.)
The popularizers view Israel’s founding in 1948 and its recapture of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967 as key end-times signs. They also see the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and a future rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple on a site sacred to Muslims, as steps in God’s unfolding plan.
Hard-line expansionists in Israel welcome this support. When Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu visited the United States in 1998, he called first on Falwell and only then met with President Clinton. (Dispensationalist dogma also foretells the mass slaughter of Jews by the Antichrist and the conversion of the surviving remnant to Christianity, but today’s popularizers downplay these themes.)
On the basis of these beliefs, dispensationalists denounce any proposals for shared governance of Jerusalem.
As Hagee writes in Final Dawn Over Jerusalem (1998): “Christians and Jews, let us stand united and indivisible on this issue: There can be no compromise regarding the city of Jerusalem. … We are racing toward the end of time, and Israel lies in the eye of the storm. … Israel is the only nation created by a sovereign act of God, and He has sworn by His holiness to defend Jerusalem, His Holy City.”
They also oppose any Jewish withdrawal from the West Bank or Gaza because these areas lie well within God’s grant to Abraham, recorded in Genesis, of all the land from “the river of Egypt” to the Euphrates.
The Bush administration’s so-called road map for peace of 2003, involving a partial Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, dismayed prophecy believers.
Michael Evans, author of the bestselling Beyond Iraq (2003), declared: “The only road map for peace is the Bible. … God gave [the Jews] that land and forbade them to sell it.” Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a prophecy believer then at the peak of his power, flew to Israel to denounce the road map.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza further rattled the prophecy writers. Evans declared himself “appalled” both by Sharon’s action and by the Israeli leader’s failure to cultivate Christian prophecy believers: “Taking this group for granted is a huge mistake,” he warned.
The Islamic factor
In the dispensationalist scenario, the Islamic world is allied against God and faces annihilation in the last days.
This is actually an ancient theme in Christian thought. Medieval prophecy expounders saw Islam as a demonic force whose doom is foretold in scripture. As Richard the Lionhearted prepared for the Third Crusade in 1190, the famed Cistercian monk and prophecy interpreter Joachim of Fiore assured him that his cause was just because the Muslim ruler Saladin, who held Jerusalem, was the Antichrist. Later interpreters cast the Ottoman Empire in the Antichrist role.
This theme faded after 1920 in the wake of the Ottoman collapse and the rise of the Soviet Union, but it surged back in the later 20th century, as prophecy popularizers demonized Islam as irredeemably evil and destined for destruction.
“When all the Jews return … in … fulfillment of the prophecies …, Arab power will be destroyed,” wrote Arthur Bloomfield in Before the Last Battle (1971). “God says he will lay the land of the Arabs waste and it will be desolate.”
In Lindsey’s novel Blood Moon, Israel, in retaliation for a thwarted nuclear attack by an Arab extremist, launches a massive thermonuclear assault on the entire Arab world. Genocide, in short, becomes the ultimate means of prophetic fulfillment.
Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait led to much speculation about Saddam Hussein’s prophetic significance. In full-page newspaper ads, the organization Jews for Jesus declared that Saddam “represent[s] the spirit of Antichrist about which the Bible warns us.”
Attention focused especially on Saddam’s grandiose plan to rebuild Babylon, the fabled city on the Euphrates. Babylon owed its splendor to King Nebuchadnezzar, the same ruler who destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and, according to the Book of Daniel, suffered God’s punishment for his arrogance. Revelation 17 portrays Babylon as the embodiment of evil, “a great whore … with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication,” and foretells its fiery annihilation.
Since Babylon can hardly be destroyed unless it exists, Saddam’s rebuilding project fell into place as an essential step toward this prophetic fulfillment.
In The Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Times (1991), Charles Dyer of Dallas Theological Seminary saw Saddam’s restoration of Babylon as “thrilling proof that the Bible prophecies are infallible.”
“When Babylon is ultimately destroyed,” Dyer declared, “Israel will finally be at peace and dwell in safety.” This theme flowed naturally into generalized musings about Saddam’s overthrow. The cover illustration of Dyer’s book juxtaposes Saddam and Nebuchadnezzar.
In the Left Behind series, the Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia, moves the United Nations to a rebuilt Babylon, laying the groundwork for the simultaneous destruction of both the sinister organization that is softening us up for the Antichrist and the city that for dispensationalists represents absolute evil and defiance of God.
The anti-Islamic rhetoric exploded after 9-11. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, denounced Islam as “a very evil and very wicked religion.” Evans, in Beyond Iraq, called it “a religion conceived in the pit of hell.”
Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a top Pentagon official, delivered sermons in fundamentalist churches portraying Washington’s post 9-11 military actions as a religious war. For Boykin, America is battling “a spiritual enemy … called Satan” whose forces will be defeated only “if we come against them in the name of Jesus.”
The U.S. invasion of Iraq, projected in 2002 and launched early in 2003, made perfect sense in terms of prophecy believers’ reading of Scripture. Lindsey’s Web site featured a cartoon of a military aircraft emblazoned with a U.S. flag and a Star of David and carrying a missile targeting “Saddam.” The caption quoted the Hebrew prophet Zechariah: “In that day I will seek to destroy all nations that come against Israel.”
In a November 2002 sermon simulcast to 127 TV stations and 82 radio stations via the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Hagee called the coming Iraq war “the gateway to the Apocalypse” and a sure sign of the Second Coming. The “birth pains of sorrow” were beginning, he said, but after this period of tribulation would come “a thousand years of peace in the millennial reign.” As the service ended, DeLay declared: “Ladies and gentlemen, what has been spoken here tonight is the truth from God.”
Although Saddam’s capture undermined his Antichrist credentials, interest in Iraq’s apocalyptic significance remains intense in prophecy circles.
God and government
To be sure, some administration policies trouble prophecy believers. The expansion of Washington’s surveillance powers after 9-11 struck some as another step toward the Antichrist’s global dictatorship. On balance, however, prophecy believers generally see the administration’s policies, from its scorn for the United Nations to the overthrow of Saddam, as placing America on God’s side in the end-time apocalyptic faceoff.
President Bush views his career as divinely ordained. As he told the Southern Baptist leader Richard Land as early as 1995: “I believe that God wants me to be President.” Boykin fervently agrees: “Bush is in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this.”
With his sense of divine mission, Bush has repeatedly cast his foreign policy in apocalyptic terms. As he told Congress three days after 9-11, his goal was “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” In June 2002, he proclaimed: “We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America … will lead the world in opposing [evil].” The description in Revelation of Jesus Christ, returning on a white horse to vanquish his foes, seems equally apt for Bush: “[I]n righteousness he doth judge and make war.”
The apocalyptic mind-set breeds triumphalist and, ultimately, deeply hubristic thinking. On one side are the evildoers — whether Russia, Islam, the New World Order or all of the above. On the other side gather the righteous who, led by Christ, will soon annihilate their foes.
Ironically, the prophecy beliefs embraced by millions of Americans find their parallel among some Muslim fundamentalists who foresee the return to Earth of the “hidden imam,” or Mahdi, who will bring a reign of peace and justice — but only after a terrible final conflict. The Mahdi’s return dominates the imagination of Iran’s fire-breathing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his followers.
In the world of apocalyptic belief, the two sides gradually become mirror images.
Since time immemorial, people have found the events of their own day foretold in Bible’s prophecy. In 1756, the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew of Boston declared: “There has probably been no age … of the world wherein events have more nearly corresponded to prophetic description than the present.”
Mayhew’s successors 250 years later similarly find today’s world foreshadowed in the prophecies, and they shape their politics accordingly.
Anyone concerned about American public life at the outset of the 21st century would do well to pay close attention to the prophetic scenario embraced by millions. For these believers, America faces not just shadowy terrorists but nothing less than the advance guard of Antichrist himself.
Paul Boyer is the author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Harvard University Press, 1992).
Paul Boyer is professor of history emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A version of this essay appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 14, 2003.