The end of the world

When David got home from school, the third grader looked everywhere for his mom and sisters. They couldn't be found in the house or the yard. Suddenly the youngster panicked. What he'd been taught in church must have happened - they'd disappeared in the "rapture," and he'd been "left behind."

For children raised in a fundamentalist Protestant background, "that wasn't an uncommon experience," says David Currie of his frantic moments years ago. They were taught Jesus could come at any moment to whisk believers to heaven and leave others to face seven years of "the great tribulation." Only after that period of suffering, violence, and disasters on Earth would Christ return in the Second Coming.

Today, as belief in this end-times prophecy sees a resurgence among Americans - partly because of the phenomenal success of the "Left Behind" series of novels (58 million sold) and the disturbing "signs" of terrorism and war - Mr. Currie and others are seeking to refute the apocalyptic theology.

Fundamentalists represent a minority of Christians - an estimated 25 million - but the interest in end-times prophecy has spread beyond their circles, and is not only shaping people's lives, but, say supporters and critics, even influencing US foreign policy.

A 2002 survey showed that 59 percent of Americans believe that the events in the Bible book of Revelation will occur in the future.

The theology behind end-time prophecy - premillennial dispensationalism (from the idea that God has divided history into ages, or dispensations) - emerged in 19th-century England. It was brought to America by missionary John Nelson Darby and spread at evangelistic conferences.

While believers say it spurs righteous living and helps discern God's plan for the world, others see it as fostering a skewed sense of history and of what Christianity is about.

Rather than the single Second Coming of Christ expected by other Christians, it presents a two-stage return of Jesus, with the plagues and catastrophes depicted in Revelation literally to take place on Earth in between. The current "church age" will end with the rapture, when Jesus will take true Christians to heaven, and the rest of humanity will face the outpouring of God's wrath, designed to turn them to Him. Many insist it will occur within a generation.

"I know people who have sold their houses and lived with relatives because they thought the world would soon come to an end," Currie says. "I know others who've cut their education short because they thought it more important to witness to people than to get their degree."

After becoming a missionary and preaching the rapturist prophecy, Currie eventually came to a very different conclusion - that this teaching was not true, and is not in the Bible.

Premillennialism is not consistent with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or mainline Protestant teaching - but it has been avidly promoted by televangelists and on Christian radio for decades. And one 2002 poll found that more Americans experience the Christian faith through radio, television, or books than by attending church.

The Left Behind series of novels, which begins with the rapture (with planes and cars crashing as Christians disappear) and carries through the tribulation years to Armageddon and the Second Coming, is a blend of fast-paced violence, catastrophes, miracles, and heartfelt faith.

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.

"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.

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.

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."

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