The end of the world
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Mr. Hitchcock, the Oklahoma pastor, is active in the movement and is coauthoring a new book, "The Truth Behind Left Behind," to respond to critics.Skip to next paragraph
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He doesn't agree with colleagues who predict dates for the rapture, or those who are against trying to improve a world they expect to only get worse. "This is not a monolithic movement," he says. "You find people who are separatistic, and people who are very involved."
In fact, the involvement of premillennialists in politics is stirring concern among some observers. As the religious right has become more prominent in political circles, critics say, they are influencing and even undermining US policy on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
Dispensationalists are also called Christian Zionists, and since the 19th century have supported the "regathering of the Jews" in the Holy Land, which they say is an essential step toward the end times. It also says the temple will be rebuilt on the Temple Mount, where the Muslim Dome of the Rock now stands.
Hitchcock says the return of Jews to Israel is "a stage-setting event for the tribulation period, when God's going to deal again with the Jewish people," giving them a last chance to recognize Jesus as Messiah.
In the meantime, dispensationalists believe that, according to Genesis, God will bless those who bless the Jews and curse those who curse them. They are therefore among Israel's staunchest supporters, backing its "ownership" of the entire West Bank. They have raised money in churches to support illegal settlements.
Don Wagner, who teaches religion and Middle East studies at North Park University in Chicago, points to specific examples of Christian Zionists' political influence: When President Bush started to call on Israel to pull the military back from Jenin refugee camp in 2002, they helped mobilize 100,000 e-mails to the White House; the president never said another word in public. And when Mr. Bush started pushing his latest peace plan, House leader "Tom DeLay headed off to Israel to speak to the Knesset and told them not to worry about it," he adds.
Dr. Wagner says that Christian Zionists are ignoring and undermining indigenous Christians in the Middle East, many of whom are descendants of the earliest Christians. A Palestinian Christian center, Sabeel, will hold a conference this spring, "Challenging Christian Zionism."
What distresses some other Christians is that the fixation on prophecy can lead genuine seekers astray about what Christianity teaches.
"Now if you talk to a man on the street he'll think Christians believe in a God who is quixotic, plays games with humanity, and is going to cheerfully zap flight crews out of planes and see the planes crash," says Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. "How do you counteract that?"
To challenge the prophecy buffs, he recently published "More Than a Skeleton," a theological thriller about what happens when a man appears in contemporary Israel who begins to say and do the same things Jesus did.
Rossing agrees with the power of storytelling. "What these [Left Behind] novels are fulfilling is the hunger to see God in the world, and they point to earthquakes, wars, and plagues like SARS," she says. "We need to help people see God's presence in other ways - in stories of healing and love and justice."