While there’s much about the Christian right that’s difficult for the rest of us to understand, the preoccupation with the “end times” is close to the top of the list. The situation in Syria seems to be having the odd effect of amplifying this already strange tendency of fundamentalist Christians to cast around looking for evidence that they will be witness to the apocalypse. One-third of Americans believes that the Syrian conflict portends the end of the world.
What makes this even weirder is how many of them want this to be true. While speaking to Jan Markell on the radio show, “Understanding the Times,” Rep. Michele Bachmann predicted that the conflict in Syria was a sign that the world was going to end, because the President was arming rebels in that country: “This happened and as of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists, now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the end times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history.”
While she didn’t come out and say it, the implication was crystal clear to the audience: President Obama is the Antichrist and his actions are going to kickstart the final battle between good and evil that will bring the end of the world. While most of us would be alarmed if we thought we were facing down the apocalypse and a worldwide war that will kill millions, Bachmann can't wait: “Rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to rejoice, Maranatha Come Lord Jesus, His day is at hand.”
Bachmann isn’t alone in this belief that the end of days is something to be desired. Three out of four evangelicals believe Christ will return soon. This is, of course, mostly wishful thinking—they believe they’re seeing the end of the world because they want to see the end of the world. Why would anyone want that, when the Bible they believe in predicts it will be mass murder, hellfire, and every grotesque thing imaginable? Here are some reasons.
1. They don’t think they’ll be around for the worst of it. Modern American fundamentalist Christians believe in something that has never before been part of Christian tradition: the Rapture. The idea is that the true believers will be whisked away into heaven before the ugly parts of the end times begin. The idea was invented in the 19th century but only took off in the late 20th century because of pop culture products like the Left Behind series. As Christian writer and critic of evangelical culture Fred Clark explained, it’s an “escapist fantasy” and a way to avoid having to consider the possibility that they may die.
Christian writers don’t really hide that this is what’s going on with end times hope. As blogger Nathan Jones said, “It is an amazing hope to have because we can know that as terrible as it is getting out there, believers in Christ don't have much longer to worry about it.”
2. The end of the world would mean they get to have the last word. One thing that’s indisputable is that if the apocalypse does come and it unspools as Christians predicted, they will have won the argument! As Doug Weaver, a professor of religion at Baylor, explained to the Washington Post, “I think history will tell you that end time predictions increase when people are being persecuted or feel persecuted.”
While conservative Christians are most definitely not being persecuted, watching their privileges decline often makes them feel persecuted. When you feel put upon, mocked and persecuted, the desire to show your opponents you were right all along can become overwhelming. So much so, that you’re willing to wish for a fiery apocalypse just so you can say I told you so.
3. It provides a distraction from and an excuse to avoid the real problems in the world. The appeal of apocalypse fantasies is mainly that they help believers avoid the fear of death. (A secular version of this can be found in zombie apocalypse stories, which work because the audience identifies with the survivors, not the people who die, i.e. zombies.) However, belief that the end times are near is used by conservatives all the time to direct their followers politically.
That’s what Bachmann was doing in that interview, using the belief in the end times to turn the audience against Obama and against his choices in Syria, without having to engage a real debate about what’s really going on. The prediction that the apocalypse is near has been used to defend everything from indifference to environmental concerns to opposition to Obamacare to preferred right-wing policies in the Middle East.
4. They want to see the non-believers punished and themselves instated as the rightful rulers of all mankind. In 1980, Pat Robertson laid out this hope bluntly, predicting that World War III and the end times were upon us, saying, “sorrow and bloodshed that will have no end soon, for the world is being torn apart, and my kingdom shall rise from the ruins of it.”
Or as Fred Clark said in his criticisms of the apocalypse fantasy books in the Left Behind series, “The authors' real message for those they regard as unsaved is to thumb their nose and do a little victory dance.”
This eagerness to see the non-believers punished is so strong in the Christian right that many are unwilling to wait until the so-called “Tribulation” described in the Left Behind books, and to a lesser degree the Bible, is upon us. That’s why, after any great tragedy, there is a rush of eager-beaver pastors willing to say this is what people have coming for being sinners, from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming “pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians” for 9/11 to John Hagee blaming the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on gay pride parades.
All of this is why someone who considers herself a good, loving Christian like Michele Bachmann can stand up and declare that the end of the world and all the violence predicted in the Bible is something to “rejoice” at. The popular hymn may state that “they will know we are Christians by our love,” but when it comes to right-wing fundamentalists, a better bet to know them is by their apocalyptic revenge fantasies.