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The end of the world

(Page 2 of 3)



According to end-times teaching, Bible prophecies in Daniel, Revelation, and elsewhere apply literally to current events (there is much debate over who the Antichrist is) and are the key to understanding world history. Other fundamental points are that the state of Israel is central to God's plan for the end times, and Jesus' return is imminent.

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"He could come tomorrow, and that grips my life and changes the way I live," says Mark Hitchcock, pastor of Faith Bible Church in Edmond, Okla. "It encourages holy living and evangelism."

Currie, who has become a Catholic, says thousands of young Catholics have been won over to fundamentalist churches through rapture theology.

Barbara White, a Jewish African-American mortician from Buffalo, N.Y., was "saved" at age 7 by a pastor "who was heavy on the rapture." It shapes her whole life.

"The priority is time - every day I cram five days into that day because of the sense of urgency," she says. "I feel I have to love every day, encourage someone every day." She has also become pastor of an interdenominational church.

Those who dispute the theology, however, say it often encourages fatalism and escapism. A prominent premillennialist, Dwight L. Moody, famously asked, "Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?"

Barbara Rossing, who teaches the New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, gets calls for help from pastors with congregation members who are avid readers of the Left Behind series. She tells of a friend who mentored a confirmation student at her church who'd read all the novels.

"As my friend talked with her about world problems, the student said, 'I don't have to worry about that because I'm going to be raptured before things get too bad,' " Dr. Rossing says. "People think they don't have to worry about the environment or other situations because God is going to take them away from it."

She recalls the stir during her own college years three decades ago, when Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth," which predicted the end of the world in 1988, sold millions of copies.

"I can relate to the fear teenagers feel and the yearning to know what God's plan is and not be left behind," Rossing adds. So she's written a book, "The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation," to be released in April. "I'm trying to offer an alternative way of understanding God's presence in the world."

She and Currie - who has written "Rapture: The End-Times Error That Leaves the Bible Behind" - explore the Bible sources for rapturist theology, aiming to demonstrate that it's a modern literalist interpretation based on selective passages taken out of context.

While some have experienced the fundamentalist teaching as fear- driven, others find comfort in it. Tim LaHaye, who created the Left Behind series to spread the theology, described in a Monitor interview last year what sparked his intense focus on prophecy.

When Mr. LaHaye was 9, his father died. The bereaved boy was inconsolable. "Then the minister at the funeral said these words: 'This is not the end of Frank LaHaye; because he accepted Jesus, the day will come when the Lord will shout from heaven and descend, and the dead in Christ will rise first and then we'll be caught up together to meet him in the air," LaHaye recalled. "All of a sudden, there was hope in my heart I'd see my father again."

LaHaye has since built an industry around the rapture theology, including the fiction series (the final volume comes out March 30), a Left Behind kids series, a prophecy club on the Web, nonfiction prophecy books, a new series of novels, and a Pre-Trib[ulation] Research Center.

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