Countdown to the end times

The world's demise gets lots of ink --- and debate

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution/May 17, 2003
By Gayle White

Ten months and counting until the "Glorious Appearing."

Not that Jesus is scheduled to descend to Earth next March. Rather, the highly anticipated event is the climactic end of the most popular Christian fiction series of all time --- "Left Behind" by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

"Armageddon," the 11th in the 12-book series, arrived in bookstores last month and already occupies the top slot on The New York Times Bestseller List. Altogether, "Left Behind" books and related products --- including children's books --- have sold more than 55 million copies.

They've also helped sell other books. A minor industry has grown up in literature to support or counter the end-times theology of "Left Behind." Several Christian denominations have published papers explaining their own doctrine of eschatology, or "last things." And studies of the mysterious, apocalyptic book of Revelation have gained new audiences.

"I know the commentary my husband and I did on Revelation has become popular in churches that want to counteract 'Left Behind,' " said Catherine Gonzalez, a professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. Gonzalez and her husband, Justo, wrote "Vision at Patmos" and a later study guide to Revelation.

Gonzalez's view is that Revelation is not God's game plan for the ultimate playoff series. It's a call to the church "to be faithful in the midst of opposition."

But some Christians take a much more literal view of Revelation, including LaHaye, who is the theologian behind "Left Behind."

"Left Behind" --- Volume 1--- begins with passengers on an airliner vanishing into thin air. The image gets to the core of a great theological debate --- the specifics of how the world will end.

Many Christians, taking their cues from the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Revelation, believe the world will undergo a tremendous battle between good and evil (Christ and Antichrist) known as Armageddon; that humankind will endure a period of terrible turmoil known as the tribulation; that Jesus Christ will return as the Apostles' Creed says "to judge the quick and the dead"; that there will be a literal or figurative 1,000 years of peace and that God's kingdom will be realized at last.

Christians regularly pray for that eventuality in the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come . . . on Earth as it is in heaven."

LaHaye and Jenkins subscribe to the "pre-trib" view. In their series, the end begins when the faithful are "raptured" suddenly to heaven. Those "left behind" must undergo seven years of tribulation before Jesus returns to Earth in glory.

Pre-trib author William Terry James believes the rapture will occur soon, followed quickly by the tribulation. "We're not in the storm yet, but we see the lightning and thunder," he said in a telephone interview.

James, a member of the Pre-Trib Study Group founded by LaHaye, cites as evidence:

Establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Formation of the European Union.

Peace efforts in the Middle East.

"We believe that there will come out of the European Union, or what it evolves into, a single leader, a brilliant politician, who will be able to convince Israel to lay down its arms and be able to convince Arab antagonists to lay down their arms in a peace treaty," James said. "This is what we think sets in motion God's judgment on an incorrigibly God-rejecting world."

James' latest book ---

"Are You Rapture Ready?" --- was written with Todd Strandberg, who established, a popular pre-trib Web site. Strandberg administers the Rapture Index, a collection of 45 signs purported to give an indication of how soon the rapture might occur.

"You could say the Rapture Index is a Dow Jones industrial average of end-time activity," Strandberg explains on the Web site, "but I think it would be better if you viewed it as [a] prophetic speedometer. The higher the number, the faster we're moving towards the occurrence of pre-tribulation rapture."

At midweek, the scale stood at 166 --- down slightly from the high of 182 in September 2001, but much higher than the low of 57 in December 1993.

An index of greater than 145 means "Fasten your seat belt."

The reason for the warnings is to persuade people to convert to Christianity, said James. "That's the only way to be ready for the rapture, or for life after death with God."

But Gary DeMar, a critic of the "Left Behind" series, says Christians should focus on how they can improve the world, not how it will end.

In his book "End Times Fiction," DeMar maintains that biblical prophecy is not being fulfilled in today's headlines, but that most of the events took place centuries ago.

Too much emphasis on the end makes people neglect the needs of the day, he said.

"The Christian church doesn't have much to say to the world if we're always living on the edge," he said. "It's a long-term perspective that builds cultures and establishes civilizations."

DeMar is president of American Vision, a reconstructionist Christian organization headquartered in Powder Springs that seeks to bring about a kingdom of God in the United States by making the Bible the nation's primary charter and modeling a legal system on the Old Testament.

Of course, speculation about the end of time has been occurring almost since the beginning of time. The king of recent date-setters is probably Hal Lindsey, whose 1970 best seller, "The Late Great Planet Earth," which went through more than 100 printings, predicted that God would end the present world order in 1988. An "updated" version says Jesus is coming in 2007.

LaHaye and Jenkins have refused to predict a specific time when the events of "Left Behind" might occur.

"We're supposed to live as if it could be today," said Jenkins. "We just don't know."

But the two have raised the questions of timing in their own nonfiction volume called "Are We Living in the End Times?"

All the attention being paid to end-times theology in the wake of the "Left Behind" megaseries may have little effect on many readers, said Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine of the book industry.

"Eschatology is not really the reason for the success of the 'Left Behind' series," she said. "They've sold to people who are not Christian, just as thrillers. My personal opinion is that these nonfiction books are going to find the same audience they've always found --- the segment of Christians who are interested in those sort of things."

Says Arthur Wainwright, a professor emeritus of New Testament at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, "It's possible that some people reading the series will think this is the one and only interpretation of the book of Revelation. In fact . . . there have been widely different interpretations of it. I think a lot of people would agree it's one of the most difficult books of the Bible to understand."

Wainwright, a Methodist, is the author of "Mysterious Apocalypse," a history of the interpretation of Revelation.

Some church leaders are making sure their flocks know where their denominations stand.

In a paper called "Left Behind and Presbyterian Belief," the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) told its members, "When Presbyterians discuss matters surrounding the end of time and the Second Coming of Christ, we practice restraint that we believe is consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures and our understanding of God." The statement is followed by a quote from Matthew 24:36, "But about that day and hour, no one knows . . . ."

The Lutheran, a magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, produced a study guide that warns, "The Bible contains many mysteries and challenges. . . . We must proceed with caution when we take the Bible's allegorical teachings and stories and apply it literally to our own situations. 'Left Behind' imagines a world that results from the 'rapture,' the notion that God will collect all righteous people from the Earth, leaving the rest of us to carry on as best we can. . . . The concept isn't a main theme of the Bible or of our faith."

Last year, Mercer University, a Baptist college, sponsored a conference that questioned the relationship of "Left Behind" theology to Baptist life. William E. Hull, a Samford University professor and main speaker, expressed concern that LaHaye's theology emphasizes fear instead of hope, according to an account in Baptists Today. The books, he said, might cause people to pay too much attention to signs of the end times at the expense of developing a relationship with Christ.

And Seventh-day Adventists, whose denomination is built on the anticipation of the return of Christ, have distributed a book called "Truth Left Behind" and hosted hundreds of seminars. "The purpose is to help people understand what really will take place in the future according to the Bible," said a news release about the seminars.

"As devout Bible followers, we do not find biblical support for the secret rapture theories," said Kermit Netteburg, spokesman for the Adventist Church in North America.

Jenkins and LaHaye said in a telephone conference call that they were surprised only that there was not a louder outcry from people who disagree with them.

"We're only presenting the basically literal interpretation of the Scripture, so we expect those who don't take prophecy literally to disagree with us," said LaHaye.

"If they want to take a reasoned approach and disagree, that's fair," said Jenkins. "This is America and it's a free country and we've certainly had our right to espouse our views in several books and several million sales."

How Southerners View the End Times

People in the South believe more strongly than those in other parts of the country in a supernatural end to the world, according to a 2001 Barna Research poll. The survey showed:

  • 40 percent of Americans --- and 49 percent of Southerners --- believe "the physical world will eventually end someday as a result of some type of supernatural intervention."
  • Among people who believe the world will end, almost two-thirds said they believe it is "very likely" that Jesus Christ will reappear on Earth; 15 percent rated it "somewhat likely." Among Southerners, 73 percent said it is "very likely" Jesus will appear.
  • Asked specifically about the "Left Behind" books, four of five people questioned who were familiar with the series said it is possible that the events will happen in real life; 41 percent said they "agree strongly," while 42 percent said they "agree somewhat" with the possibility. Of those who said they had read some or all of the "Left Behind" books, 44 percent were Southerners.

Source: Barna Research Group

The End Times: A Glossary

Antichrist: Primary enemy of Christ.

Apocalypse: "Revelation" or "unveiling"; literary genre that purports to reveal the future, in Christianity usually emphasizing God's final judgment.

Armageddon: Battlefield in ancient Israel at the foot of the hill of Megiddo, believed to be the site of the final battle between good and evil.

Eschatology: "Last discourse," the doctrine of last things.

Millennium: One thousand years of Christ's reign; advocates fall into two categories, pre-millennialists, who believe the period of peace will follow Jesus' triumphant return to Earth, and post-millennialists, who believe the period prepares the way for the Second Coming. Literal belief in the millennium is called millenarianism.

Rapture: The sudden ascension of the faithful to heaven. Those who accept a literal rapture disagree about when in the end-times events it will occur.

Revelation: Last book of the New Testament, whose author is described as John the Divine; letters to seven churches of Asia are followed by a series of visions that include apocalyptic horsemen, spectacular beasts, a war between angels and Satan, and a general resurrection and judgment of souls.

Tribulation: A seven-year period of suffering connected to end times; Christians differ in their views about whether this should be taken literally and, if so, whether Christians will have to endure it or will be raptured before it begins.

Sources: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, Zondervan Dictionary of Bible and Theology Words.

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