The Rev. Joe A. Carbajal, senior pastor of Mighty Wind Worship Center, is confident he is living in the last days before Armageddon — and he is far from alone in his beliefs.
“The end may be nearer than you think,” the Waco preacher says. “There is startling evidence that suggests the second coming of Christ, the rapture of the church and the end of man's reign over the Earth is nearing its conclusion.”
With a born-again believer in the White House who called Jesus Christ his favorite philosopher, and the daily headlines jammed with incendiary news about turmoil in the Middle East, it is not surprising that some may be experiencing apocalyptic jitters.
Millions of consumers of Christian pop culture are now familiar with some aspects of “End Times” theology through the Left Behind novel series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
For the generation before them, their apocalyptic consciousness-raising came through the books of Hal Lindsey, who sold 15 million copies of his 1970 warning of cataclysm, The Late Great Planet Earth.
They are birthed by the same view of eschatology (Greek for “study of last things”) called “pre-millennial dispensationalism.” This complicated 19th-century doctrinal system was championed by Irish evangelist John Nelson Darby.
Darby devised a complex systems of diagrams outlining the end times, using verses plucked from Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah, as well as the Gospels and the Book of Revelation.
Darby's version was popularized in the early 20th century by C.I. Scofield, famed for the Scofield Reference Bible. The term “pre-millennial” refers to events taking place before Christ's 1,000-year reign of peace on Earth following the second coming, and “dispensationalism” refers to the role that Christianity has in restoring the relationship between Israel and God.
“I am so frustrated by how so many so-called mainline Christians, clergy included, are caught up by dispensationalism,” said the Rev. Robert Flowers, a local peace activist who also heads the Wesley Foundation, a United Methodist center just off the Baylor University campus.
This view of a militant, violent sequence of events for the end times, he said, “has no problem with Jesus coming back in a blaze of glory, casting nonbelievers into hell with modern weaponry.”
Flowers said he reads the “crisis literature” of the Old and New Testaments as texts hewn from the context of persecution and exile of believers, written to give their listeners a word of hope. They say, despite their lot, God is with them.
“What results is not a violent, militant God who comes to make mincemeat out of our opponents, but a God who in the very midst of suffering and oppression brings consolation,” Flowers said.
He feels the current border strife between Lebanon and Israel has nothing to do with biblical prophecy and everything to do with lamentably familiar warfare. His concern with a literal, fundamentalist reading of the texts, he added, is that some Christians see pre-millennial dispensationalism's version as the blueprint to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.
“These people want to help usher in the so-called second coming of Jesus by any means necessary, even violent destruction via militarism,” Flowers said.
But another Methodist minister, the Rev. Margaret Stratton, pastor of Robinson Drive United Methodist Church, couldn't be more adamant that humanity is in “the end times of the last days.”
The signs of the Lord's coming are all around us, she said.
“Jesus said that wars, pestilences, earthquakes, famines and so forth would escalate and increase like the pains of a woman in childbirth before his return,” she said.
Stratton said it was clear that certain prophesied events are taking place on a much more intense and frequent scale.
“The nation of Israel is the where all the focus of the world is to be in the end times. What is happening to Israel is how we measure where we are on God's time table,” she said. With the global media fixated on “tiny little Israel now, could this be just be a coincidence or is it prophecy being fulfilled before the eyes of the world?”
Baptist minister Jerry Smith of Clifton isn't so sure.
“While I believe the Middle East is always a potential conflict area of our world, I am not given over to hysteria that the end times have arrived,” he said. “I also grew up during Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth time frame. I believe a person needs to be very careful about placing time limits on God. Church history is littered with those who have sought to figure God out on his final curtain call.”
Smith said he is preaching from Revelation today, the first time he's done so in a long while. But rather than fire and brimstone, he is dispensing hope and healing.
“Revelation was primarily written to help a suffering church going through great persecution to continue to have faith,” he said.
Steve Mansen, pastor of Central Christian Church of Waco, said he makes it a general rule when he hears someone predicting the end of times to “run in the opposite direction. No one has been right so far and the Bible clearly states, 'Of that day or time no one shall know.'”
He accepts the Israeli-Lebanon conflict as a sign that difficult times are coming.
“But things will have to get much worse before the actual end times come.” Besides, he added, “the Lord gives his people fair warning of what is yet to be.”
For the biblically minded, evangelical Christian, the “End of Days” is always present and the return of Christ is always “imminent” — even if it's chronologically far off, noted Roger Olson, a theology professor at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
“The burden of the New Testament is to ask what manner of lives we ought to live in light of the fact that eventually all these things (world systems) are to be dissolved,” he said.
The faithful are not encouraged to speculate about the date or time frame of the Lord's return, he added. “Contemporary Christians should not be obsessed with the 'signs of the times' but with faithful living.”
One spiritual leader with more than an academic interest in the current Middle East melee is Rabbi Mordechai Rotem of Temple Rodef Sholom. The leader of the Reform synagogue in Waco is “vacationing” in the war zone this week, visiting family and friends in Haifa, his hometown.
In an e-mail to the Tribune-Herald earlier this week, he said Reform Jews in general “don't believe in the concept of 'end of days' that will come about with a major war. We see the current events as part of the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists' goal to destroy the Jewish state.”
Furthermore, he added, “I can't see any religious meaning to this regional conflict. I do hope it does not develop into a World War. Two of those were more than enough.”
He is joined in those sentiments by local minister Steve Heyduck, pastor of First United Methodist Church of McGregor.
“Whatever else I can tell you about the current war in the Middle East between Israel and Hezbollah, let me assure you of one thing. These events are NOT part of God's plan to bring an end to the world,” Heyduck wrote this week in his blog, EverydayTheology.blogspot.com.
The fact that some Christians are excited at the escalation of violence in and around Israel, he added, sickens him. People who follow the Prince of Peace should not be rejoicing over war in the Middle East, Heyduck wrote, but “praying that God will make himself known there, as well as here.”
“Those who pick and choose and convolute Scripture to say that Jesus will return and we will be saved when such things happen are no doubt actually cheering these recent events. It is a depraved mind indeed that rejoiced in the suffering of others in the name of imagined future peace for oneself,” he concluded.
Carbajal, meanwhile, said he is keeping his eye on the signs, and the battle map.
“Israel is the key to the end time prophecy and the city of Jerusalem is the center stage. They are God's people and he has been attempting to get their attention throughout history,” he noted.
Raymond Bailey, pastor of Seventh and James Baptist Church of Waco, contends that Jesus taught his followers to focus on the present and leave the future to God.
“He said that the final judgment would be based on care for the hungry, the homeless and the oppressed. Debates about the end of time are a waste of time that could be spent in the service of God,” Bailey said.