Apocalyptic Theology Revitalized by Attacks

New York Times/November 23, 2001
By Kevin Sack

Atlanta -- Aaron M. Hopper, a 23-year-old middle-school teacher, was scanning the bookshelves of the Family Christian Store in Gainesville, Ga., today when a new paperback caught his attention.

It was "Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days," by John C. Hagee, a San Antonio evangelist who writes about biblical prophecy and Armageddon.

"I said, `I've got to have this,' " Mr. Hopper said. "I'm settled on the fact that this happened for a reason, that God was trying to get our attention. The Bible says there will be great sorrow before the end times, and what happened on Sept. 11 is just an example."

Mr. Hopper is far from alone in his interest. As with the approach of the year 2000, the Sept. 11 attacks have invigorated the apocalyptic brand of theology embraced by many Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists, who view the collapse of the World Trade Center towers as the latest harbinger of the end times.

At Christian bookstores across the nation, titles on biblical prophecy, both fiction and nonfiction, have flown off the shelves in the last two months. Christian Web sites and bulletin boards are chock-full of commentary and interpretation on the meaning of the attacks and their place in the prophetic timeline. Pastors have taken to their pulpits to predict that the second coming is near, with some going so far as to speculate that they could be preaching their final sermons.

There's a heightened interest, no doubt about it," said the Rev. Russ G. Shinpoch, pastor of Wildwood Baptist Church in Acworth, Ga., northwest of Atlanta. "God got America's attention. And in my opinion, the window's going to be brief."

Like many of his conservative counterparts, Mr. Shinpoch says he believes that Jesus could return within two or three years. "As far as we know, there's no more prophecy to be fulfilled," he said. "It literally could be any day."

That, of course, is not necessarily the view within the mainstream of Christianity. Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute, a California group that studies what it considers to be aberrant Christian theology, said the prophetic strain of the faith had always suffered from an overly literal interpretation - and often misinterpretation - of the Scriptures. Mr. Hanegraaff said the leaders of the prophecy movement, beneficiaries of a multimillion-dollar industry, were always looking for cataclysmic events to validate their doomsday scenarios and paper over previously failed forecasts.

"There are always these events that the prophecy teachers seize upon and say, `See, I told you so,' " Mr. Hanegraaff said. "A lot of these people are desperate, because how many times can you be wrong."

Nonetheless, there is little question that Sept. 11 had a profound impact on those who subscribe to end-times theology. A recent survey of 500 bookstores by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association found that the number of nonfiction books about prophecy sold in the eight weeks after Sept. 11 had increased by 71 percent compared with the previous eight weeks.

The country's top-selling hardcover fiction book, meanwhile, is "Desecration" (Tyndale House) by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the ninth volume in the enormously popular "Left Behind" series, which depicts a global battle between the forces of good and evil after the Rapture of the saved. The book, which made its debut atop The New York Times best-seller list last week and remains there this week, had an initial printing of 2.97 million copies, more than any other fiction book this year, according to Publishers Weekly. Another 100,000 copies will be printed in time for Christmas.

Because the "Left Behind" series has such a devoted following, "Desecration" presumably would have sold well even had it not been published on Oct. 30. But sales thus far are more robust than for the eighth book in the series, which was published last year, and officials at Tyndale believe that the terrorist attacks spurred demand.

"People who have read the `Left Behind' series felt they were seeing something right out of the books," said Daniel J. Balow, director of business development for the publisher. "And people who had never read the series have been pushed to consider what the future brings."

Doug R. Ross, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, predicted that Christian retailers would enjoy an increase of 5 percent to 7 percent in sales for the Christmas season. "That, of course, is contrary to what you see in the general trade," Mr. Ross said. "And I think one of the reasons is certainly in response to the times we live in. A cataclysmic event like Sept. 11 and the unsettledness in the Middle East cause people to say, 'Is this the war to end all wars?' "

Web sites trading in apocalyptic material have also been popular. Orders tripled in September and October for Armageddon Books, a concern in North Carolina that sells 600 prophecy-related items over the Web, said Broderick D. Shepherd, the company's owner.

"The worse the news was for America, the better our business was," Mr. Shepherd said.

Another Web site features a "Rapture index" that describes itself as "a Dow Jones Industrial Average of end-time activity." By assigning numerical values in 45 prophetic categories, it ostensibly measures the velocity of movement toward the Rapture, when Christians supposedly will vanish before a seven-year apocalypse led by the anti-Christ. The total score of 182 recorded on Sept. 24 was the highest ever. Any score over 145, according to the index, suggests you should "fasten your seat belt."

Those who embrace biblical prophecy have linked the terrorist attacks to both complicated interpretations of Scripture and to a number of specific biblical references, from Isaiah 30:25 ("in the day of great slaughter, when the towers fall") to Revelation 18:10 ("thou mighty city, Babylon! In one hour has thy judgment come.")

Many pastors have used such predictions to encourage their parishioners to get right with God. But some authorities say that such an emphasis misstates Jesus' intent.

"I worry that this apocalyptic fixation leads to a kind of otherworldliness on the part of many Christians," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College. "Rather than looking to improve or reform the world, they simply are opting out and predicting judgment. They talk about individual regeneration rather than social amelioration, and to emphasize one at the price of the other is a distortion of the gospel."

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