Ask any student of biblical prophecy to name the most important date on any end-of-the-world timeline, and you'll be referred to an event nearly six decades ago: The reestablishment of the state of Israel in 1948, after centuries of Jewish dispersion. Evangelicals who read biblical prophecy from a premillennialist perspective -- which we'll get to later -- see the creation of Israel as the direct fulfillment of Old Testament passages in Ezekiel 36 and 37, in which God promises to restore his Hebrew people to their homeland right before a period of intense judgment and warfare.
To these believers, that means any Israeli-focused conflict in the Middle East has the potential to become the war to end all wars.
That's why Israel's current conflict with Lebanon has set apocalyptic alarms buzzing across the United States. Newsweek, in its Aug. 7 "Beliefwatch" column, asks whether this could be "the end." Chuck Raasch, writing in USA Today, worries about "glimpses of the apocalypse" in the headlines. On July 27, "Good Morning, America" even brought in "Left Behind" coauthors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins to comment on the prophetic nature of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict.
Meanwhile, Internet chatter has had many citing recent events as evidence that the long-awaited Second Coming of Christ is near. The Rapture Index, a meticulously categorized barometer of end-times activity posted at the popular Web site Rapture Ready, hovers around the mid-150s. (Compare that to its apex of 182, reached in September 2001.) Postings on its message board vary from giddy expectancy -- "Can you hear the soft tread of the Messiah's footstep? Can you feel the soft beating of your heart in anticipation of His soon return?" (Cricket55) -- to more nuanced geopolitical analysis, sans freaky Jesus romanticism.
While the mainstream media continues to give air time to Christian eschatology -- loosely defined as the branch of theology that deals with the end of the world -- the left-leaning side of the Web is growing increasingly uneasy. Last week, media watchdog Media Matters called out CNN for using apocalyptic religious language in discussing the war and for turning to religious novelists like Jenkins for insight. Posters at Daily Kos agree, wondering where the experts are who could, for instance, identify such religious ravings as "a bunch of crap." And William Rivers Pitt, worrying about the Bush administration's die-hard support of Israel under the influence of its Revelation-reading supporters, scolds "right-wing Christian[s] who cannot wait for the Apocalypse."
Which brings us to several questions: Why are so many evangelicals so passionate about Israel? What is it about the current conflict that so intrigues the Bible prophecy squad? And finally, are any of them really "cheerleading the Apocalypse," as Pitt describes? Does your average evangelical Christian actually get excited about the potential of World War III?
The answer to the first question is deceptively simple: Evangelical Christians love Israel because they believe God loves Israel. "And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed," God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, is the driving force behind that belief, according to David Brog, author of "Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State." "The real motive behind Christianity's support for Israel is the promises of Genesis, not the prophecies of Revelation," says Brog, a practicing Jew who once served as chief of staff to Republican senator Arlen Specter. To Christians, those promises indicate that Israel's continued existence as a nation is God's will.
That's a primary reason many believers supported the establishment of Israel. It's also why substantial numbers of the American faithful stood by Israel during the Six Days' War in 1967, after which Israel captured Jerusalem, occupying the Gaza strip, the Sinai Peninsula and beyond. After all, this was the territory the Bible says God promised Israel after delivering the Hebrews from Egypt. The Bible maintains that God was, and is, on the side of Israel. That's as good a reason as any to throw political support Israel's way. "If America wants God's blessing," Brog says, "you bless the state of Israel."
A desire for God's favor may explain the philo-Semitism of many evangelical Christians. But there's another element of theology that has fueled the passionate attention given Israel, especially within the past few weeks. A significant amount of end-times prophecy concerns the future of Israel. A literal reading of these biblical passages -- and there are many, from Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament to Revelation in the New Testament -- has convinced adherents of an interpretive system called "dispensational premillennialism" (the theological framework behind "Left Behind") that the restored nation of Israel is one of God's primary signs of the last days. To them, turmoil in and around a re-gathered Israel can mean only one thing: Human history is headed for its final chapter. "Israel is the most important signal on God's prophetic timeline," says Terry James, general editor of Rapture Ready and the author of "The Rapture Dialogues," an end-times novel. "It will be the center of controversy at the end of time."
The history of dispensational premillennialism is nearly as complex as the book of Revelation itself, and that's saying something. A second and third century form of Christian eschatology designated "historical premillennialism" read Revelation as a message that Jesus would soon return to earth to save the early church from its Roman persecutors. It fell out of favor, though, when the persecution stopped in the fourth century, when Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of Rome. Premillennialism made a comeback in the 19th century, thanks to an Irish Anglican named John Nelson Darby. It was Darby, a tireless traveling preacher, who popularized a theory known as "dispensationalism." He believed God's historical dealings with humankind fell into different epochs, or "dispensations," within which God offered a different avenue to salvation. (God dealt differently with Adam and Eve than he did with humankind after the flood, and God's relationship with the church today is different from his Old Testament relationship with Israel.) Darby concluded that humankind will enter a new dispensation at the end of time, and that in those final days, Israel -- which fell out of God's favor upon rejecting Jesus as the messiah -- will regain its position as God's elect.
Darby didn't just introduce the primacy of Israel's role in the end times. He also called attention to an event known as the Rapture. The concept of the Rapture doesn't appear at all in the Revelation timeline. It originates in 1 Thessalonians, a New Testament book in which the apostle Paul describes those believers who are still alive at the time being "caught up together in the clouds" when trumpets sound. The true church, Darby believed, would be removed from the earth prior to a period of warfare and judgment called the tribulation. The most bizarre events of Revelation -- horsemen of the apocalypse, locust assassins, rivers turning to blood, stars falling from the sky -- are said to refer to this seven-year doomsday period, also referenced in the Old Testament book of Daniel.
But premillennialists, then and now, don't always agree on when, exactly, to cue the heavenly horns. Some place the Rapture in the middle (mid-tribulationists) or end (post-tribulationists) of the seven-year tribulation. The majority of premills, however, are pre-tribulationists. (They're the ones with "In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned" bumper stickers on their SUVs.) And as Media Matters can attest, current headlines are starting to look a lot like chapter titles in apocalyptic Christian fiction. They're not the only ones who see this. The Israel-Hezbollah conflict has convinced many premillennialists that God, working through Israel, is steering the world toward its final days. "There are no prophecies that have to be fulfilled before the Rapture," James says. "It's imminent." In fact, the Rapture has been imminent for 2,000 years. In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul warned believers that it could happen at any moment.
What makes our current moment potentially more "imminent" than in years past? James says it has everything to do with Israel. He points to the prophetic Old Testament book of Zechariah, which predicts a point in the last days when Israel will become a "burdensome stone for all people," with all the nations of the earth gathered against her. Here we have Israel going to war against a potentially wide-ranging enemy like Islamic fundamentalism, not to mention an international community angered at Israel's relentless bloodshed. "Most dispensational premillennialists believe that all of prophetic battles and wars in the Bible relating to Israel will happen after the Rapture," says Dr. Thomas Ice, executive director of the Pre-Trib Research Center, a Bible prophecy think tank founded by Tim LaHaye in 1994 and housed at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. "In today's situation, you can see where everyone is coming against Israel. What's happening there could be setting the stage for the tribulation."
Despite their die-hard support, premillennialists don't necessarily believe Israel must prevail in any specific battle. Israel's role is merely to get the ball rolling. "I don't think it's important one way or another that Israel wins the current war," Ice says, "since what we believe we are moving toward is an agreement between the Antichrist of the revived Roman Empire and Israel." He references a prophecy in Revelation 17 concerning a 10-headed beast, interpreted as the embodiment of a future world power as great as that of ancient Rome. This international authority -- lately identified as the European Union by some premillennialists -- will come to power during the last days, giving rise to none other than the Antichrist. Which means the outcome of the Israel-Lebanon conflict is of little consequence to the prophetic itinerary. What matters is that it moves Israel toward isolation, positioning it to allow the "10-headed beast" to temporarily take control. At any rate, the Bible guarantees Israel's ultimate victory. "Bible prophecy plainly teaches that Israel will be a nation forever," James says. He cites passages like Genesis 17:7-8 and Jeremiah 31:35-36, which claim Israel's everlasting possession of the Promised Land, and its permanent status as a nation before God.
Which brings us to that final question: Does violence in the Middle East -- theoretically a precursor to the Second Coming -- make premillennialist Christians happy? Yes and no. "Anyone who believes in the Rapture looks forward to going, and yes, I assume, to be rescued from a world heading for even more perilous times," says "Left Behind" series coauthor Jenkins. But he insists that the bumper sticker types gloating about it are not quite in line with the messiah they claim to follow. "Why hurry an event that will assure that untold millions will be left behind? I mean, 'good for us, too bad for you' seems an attitude wholly antithetical to the teachings of Christ."
James reacts just as strongly to being labeled as "cheerleading the apocalypse." "It's totally wrong to think we actually want war to happen to bring about the [Second Coming]," he says. "We can't affect things one way or another, anyway." That's a valid point, Brog says. Premillennialist Christians "believe that one sign of the Last Days is widespread moral decay. If they believed their actions could influence the Second Coming, then why fight that moral decay? Why not speed it along by opening brothels or casinos or dealing drugs?" Along those lines, he says, wouldn't it also make sense to invite Armageddon by weakening Israel, rather than supporting it?
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples that the timing of the Second Coming is a decision made by God alone. "Of that day and hour knoweth no man," the text reads, "no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only." And if Jesus himself isn't clued in to God's timetable? You get the idea. "It's folly to guess, and it's playing God to try to intervene," Jenkins says. Those who believe otherwise, he says, "are in the minority and on the fringe, and I hope they stay there. God will do what he will do, and we will have no say in it."
But denying their own intervention isn't quite so simple. Evangelical Christians donate millions of dollars to pro-Israel causes every year. The pro-Israel evangelical vote helped get George W. Bush elected in 2000 and 2004. That same constituency is behind the Bush administration's refusal to back down from support of Israel, despite escalating violence to civilians in the Israel-Lebanon war. And while few politicians would admit to using biblical prophecy as a policy guide, it's hard to ignore the 800-pound gorilla behind the U.S.-Israel alliance: that in many ways it owes a debt to our nation's religious beliefs, including the promises of Genesis, the prophetic visions of Ezekiel and Revelation, and a once obscure, now popular, branch of Christian eschatology that is watching and waiting for the end.