Christians at Chino conference say crisis predicted by ancient prophets

Contra Costa Times/February 21, 2009

Chino - Today marks the last of the three-day Southern California Prophecy Conference at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, where thousands of evangelicals have gathered to get the Biblical scoop on breaking news from around the world.

"This book is as relevant, and in fact moreso, than anything you read on any intelligence report in this country," said Orange County-based Bible teacher David Hocking.

Evangelicals like Hocking teach that trouble from Wall Street to the Gaza Strip presages a plummet to the end of the world as they know it

Because the Bible tells them so.

"The Bible is the only forward-looking or prophetic book in the hands of man," said Jack Hibbs, the church's senior pastor.

The conference wraps up today with a lecture by Tim LaHaye, co-author of the "Left Behind" series, a best-selling collection of books that turned terrifying prophecies into palatable fiction for those seeking to escape earth's final destruction.

The Bible calls it the "Great Tribulation," a time of devastating world war, famine, pestilences and religious persecution, according to LaHaye.

"We're closer than we've ever been," he said Wednesday. "I'm trying to rescue people to Christ before it's too late."

Christ prior to the Tribulation will whisk to heaven those who believe in him on this side of eternity. Evangelical theologians call this "The Rapture."

Once the saints are ensconced in heaven, God will unleash seven years of judgment on earth. When the judgment has run its course, Christ will return with his saints to reign over a renewed creation.

A revival hour

"I do feel that it's getting worse and we could be in the end times," said Kate Matthews, an Upland resident who attended Friday night's packed session.

Still, evangelicals place too much emphasis on last days talk, she said. "It's in God's hands and you should just trust him."

Observers of religious trends say interest in God and spirituality tends to spike during difficult days.

Bill Huntley, professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands, is one who has spotted a common bookend to many American tragedies.

"After every one of the big wars in American history there have been revivals," Huntley said. "That suggests to me that (in) times of crisis and the reflection upon them in the aftermath, people are drawn to the deepest roots of our beliefs."

After Sept. 11, the enrollment in world religions classes at the university exploded.

"I learned that at my divinity school, Yale Divinity School, that the applications for the coming year are up almost 30 percent," he said. "That confirms what I was saying, I think."

The late, great United States

America's place in prophecy is a curious concept for evangelicals who would plant the flag at the foot of the cross.

"This is the number one asked question in prophecy," said Pastor Mark Hitchcock of Faith Bible Church in Edmond, Okla.

Hitchcock spoke Saturday on his latest book, "The Late Great United States: What Bible Prophecy Reveals about America's Last Days."

His answer? Nothing. And that could be the biggest clue about the fate of the country, he said in a phone interview.

"The question is, why are we not mentioned?" Hitchcock said. "To me, that the greatest economic power in history is not mentioned in the Bible is significant."

Hitchcock said there are plausible scenarios - such as a catastrophic financial collapse - that could spell the nation's glaring omission from Bible prophecy.

And the Rapture will turn America into a second-rate nation overnight, when millions of Christians disappear, Hitchcock said.

Wars, natural disasters, rampant immorality, a reeling economy and the rise of Islam are a prelude to that near or distant event, he said.

"Joe six-pack has a sense something is happening," Hitchcock said. "You don't have to be politically astute."

Nothing new under the sun

While some evangelicals say it's the end of the world, others say it's the end of the world again.

"They're like the boy who cries wolf," said Bible teacher Steve Gregg. "Someday, Jesus will return and nobody will take them seriously because they cried wolf too much."

Gregg hosts a Santa Cruz-based radio program called "The Narrow Path." He is the author of "Revelation: Four Views," a book that documents various takes on Saint John's apocalypse. Gregg lectures often in Southern California.

He said evangelicals tend to forget past prognostications from preachers who applied Bible prophecies to global politics.

Gregg lived in Orange County during the so-called "Jesus Movement" of the 1960s and early 1970s. Those days in some ways mirror these. Recession and war marked those times, and many evangelicals thought the apocalypse was at hand.

His baby boomer peers witnessed a pop culture phenomenon in Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth," a best-selling guess at end-times scenarios predicated on the milieu of the day.

Although many of his predictions petered into oblivion, Lindsey continued to pen tomes on the end of time, shuffling the deck of political players and drawing new characters to place on destiny's stage.

"It seems like an endless task of nervously keeping their followers on board," Gregg said. "It must be a nervous ministry, because history keeps throwing us curves. We keep getting new data."

He recalled how Sept. 11 reaped a crop of doomsday theories unrivalled since Lindsey's works lathered up churches from coast to coast.

"Christians are certainly provincial in their outlook, so if we're losing ground, the end of the world is here," Gregg said. "People who teach so are abusing the Bible."

A deadly doctrine?

Those at the conference say a slate of prophecies revolve around modern-day Israel.

According to some, the generation that saw Israel's rebirth on May 14, 1948, will also see the return of Jesus Christ.

But the posit that before the second coming, Israel will suffer unprecedented genocide.

LaHaye is clear: "That's what the prophets said."

LaHaye pins his premise to a passage from Zechariah 13:8: "And it shall come to pass in all the land, says the Lord, that two-thirds in it shall be cut off and die, but one-third shall be left in it."

Evangelicals such as LaHaye interpret the verse to mean that two-thirds of Jews during the Tribulation will be killed by a one-world ruler. But in a prophetic plot twist, the surviving Jews will convert to Christianity when Christ returns and rescues them from extinction.

It's a ghastly reading of Christian scripture and a deadly departure from what most Christians throughout history have believed, some have said.

Among them is Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute in Charlotte, N.C.

"To me, the height of anti-Semitism would be to suggest that as soon as we get the Jews in the holy land, we get to be raptured and they get to be butchered," Hanegraaff said.

And rhetoric in the pews translates into real problems on the ground, he said.

Hanegraaff pointed out that many churches, believing that Christ will return to a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, fund Jewish emigration to Israel and the rebuilding of an Old Testament-style sanctuary where Islam's Dome of the Rock sits.

That's a quick ticket to Armageddon, he said.

"If you want a prescription for an apocalypse in our epoch of time, that's it," Hanegraaff said. "But it has nothing to do with fulfilling Bible prophecy. It has everything to do with the fact that (some evangelicals) are no longer in the bleachers, they are on the playing field, helping events to occur."

Keeping the faith

Despite criticism from their theological opponents, those leading the conference say they are the most faithful to what the Bible teaches about the end of days.

"All these things Jesus spoke about in Matthew 24," Hibbs said. "If people are realizing it or not, it's Biblically based. People are coming and looking for answers and that's pretty cool."

Like Hitchcock, Hibbs doesn't necessarily believe Armageddon is at hand, but there's nothing to preclude it.

And what of those who disagree with his interpretations?

"I'm just going to point to the Bible and let's just watch and see."

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